“That was fools gold,” Suns coach Monty Williams said later.
And he was right. After a Grizzlies timeout, the Suns allowed a 14-2 response and found themselves down for most of the night to a team that they should have beaten. The Grizzlies won the game 115-108, taking the lead for good on a 16-3 run bridging the third and fourth quarters after the Suns led 78-75.
Even the Suns players couldn’t, or wouldn’t, sugarcoat the loss.
“It can’t happen again,” point guard Ricky Rubio said. “It was one of the worst losses if not the worst loss of the season. The way it happened, we didn’t play how we know how to play. We have to learn from that.”
Until Wednesday night, the Suns had only suffered two home losses to losing teams, against the Wizards and Pelicans on hot-hot shooting nights by the opponents. The Suns 10 other losses have been to winning teams and/or occurred on the road.
This one felt different. The Grizzlies weren’t shooting lights-out and looked beatable all game. The Suns just could not muster the energy to turn the tide in their favor.
Rubio finished with a season high 22 points on 15 shots — something that shows the guys weren’t running to their spots and through their cuts hard enough — to go with 8 assists and season high 5 turnovers. Rubio only tallied two assists after the first quarter.
Booker voiced what we all saw.
“Games like this are a must-win for us...We dropped the ball today,” Suns guard Devin Booker said. “I think we came in complacent thinking it was going to be easier than it was. They came ready to play. Credit to them for playing hard but we have to do better.”
Booker has been playing with a wrap on his right wrist the last couple of games, which might have contributed to his 6-17 shooting night.
The Suns had plenty of chances, but in the first half they couldn’t make shots — missing 23 of 26 after that 5/5 start, finishing with 35% shooting at halftime — and in the second half they failed to get stops.
Make no mistake, the Grizzlies are a tough out. They play hard, they play physical, they force the referees to either call tons of fouls or simply swallow their whistles. But the Suns did not get physical back, and that cost them.
Also, a game after shooting lights out against the Timeberwolves, the Suns could not find the basket. They shot 36% in the first half and 39.8% for the game — third lowest of the year for the Suns, and fourth lowest for a Grizzlies opponent so far.
Frank Kaminsky was the only good offensive player most of the night, scoring 8 of those initial 11 points of the game and finishing with a season high 24 points on 9-12 shooting (4-4 on threes). But when the Grizzlies spread the floor in the fourth quarter for their dribble drives, Monty could not go back to Frank to help close the game.
In the fourth quarter when the Suns were fighting back, the Grizzlies turned to a tactic that had been successful recently against the Suns: spread out five-wide, then attack the basket on a dribble drive. Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr. all had success (though more traveling and foul-baiting in there at times than I’d like) to keep the Suns at bay.
“Their ability to drive the ball past us was deflating at times,” Williams said.
Monty Williams will have to make some defensive adjustments, because the Suns are not athletic enough to have a five-man lineup defend dribble-drives all the way from the perimeter to the basket without weak side help. But that’s what coaching is all about — schemes to maximize your effectiveness while minimizing the opponents’ strengths. Right now the Suns are more interested in guarding the three-point line than the rim on a five-out situation (Grizzlies had only 24 three-point attempts, second fewest of season), but there’s got to be better help at the rim on those drives.
“They attacked us in the paint. That’s their game,” Williams said. “Last time they had 62 points in the paint. Tonight they had I think 50. That’s just way too many points. We shouldn’t have to switch defenses every timeout just to keep guys out of the paint, so it’s obviously something we have to learn from. I just didn’t think our focus and KYP (know your personnel) was at a high level tonight. I didn’t see that from us and that’s definitely on me.”
Lots of Suns fans were melting down last night watching their Suns lay this egg, but please remember that this is just one of 82 games and every team has a bad loss or 10 on their books by the end of it.
“It isn’t the only one that we are going to play like that,” Rubio said. “It happens sometimes. We don’t have to make a big deal about it but at the same time, we are going to learn from it. There are going to be nights like this but we are going to grind. Especially at home, we have to play hard. We need more energy from, everybody, starting with us, the coaches, and the crowd. Tonight wasn’t our night.”
The Suns travel to Mexico City for a game this Saturday against the San Antonio Spurs. Devin Booker, whose mother is a Mexican-American from Michigan, looks forward to another chance to play down there after two games in January of the 2016-17 season when he was just 20 years old.
“It’s exciting for me,” Booker said, mentioning partnerships and Nike shoots he’s done in Mexico since the 2017 games. “Giving them a show playing in front of them will be good.”
Booker scored 39 points in each of his previous Mexico City appearances, including a win over Gregg Popovich’s Spurs.