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Collapse in San Francisco shines a light on much larger issues for the Suns right now

Lineups, shot creation, and defense, oh my!

Phoenix Suns v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

You could think of Dec. 27, 2019, as the night Alec Burks slayed the Suns. Looking at what the Warriors did well, however, would ignore all the ways the Suns lost this game themselves. Burks and his Golden State teammates took over when it mattered, but the same demons that have followed the Suns the past month again peaked into the Chase Center and cursed the Suns.

Phoenix led this game, 78-66, heading into the final period. Devin Booker was hot, with 28 points on the night. The Suns were dominating the glass. Everything was coming up roses for the Suns to finally end their losing streak and start a four-game road trip on the right foot.

To open the fourth quarter, head coach Monty Williams went with a lineup of Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre Jr., Cameron Johnson, Mikal Bridges and Aron Baynes. I don’t know how that lineup fared prior to last night, but right now, Cleaning the Glass shows it’s a minus-20.8 on the season.

The Suns fell apart offensively at the start of the final quarter.

The biggest downfall of this Suns team since its 7-4 start is the lack of secondary shot creation. Rubio is best pushing the pace and being patient amid chaos, while Booker can get a good shot at any time. With Booker on the bench and Golden State doing its best to slow the game down, the Rubio-led offense was hapless.

After weeks of being passive when Booker was off the floor, Rubio has responded to Williams staggering the pair’s minutes by taking a ton of shots.

Here are Rubio’s stats extrapolated to per 100 possessions when Booker is on the court versus when he is on the bench, via the NBA’s Impact tool:

It’s hard to fault Rubio for this discrepancy. There were certainly games the Suns lost during those minutes when Rubio was on the floor as the primary play-maker without Booker. It was a fix that was needed, but last night felt like an overcorrection.

Over the first few minutes of the fourth quarter, Rubio took pull-up jumpers on four out of five possessions.

This is the issue. Rubio has never been a player that can get to the basket. Quickness and athleticism aren’t what earned him a place in the league. Without a great first step or any shake with his dribble get past defenders, Rubio relies heavily on his trademark hanging bank shots as well as mid-range jumpers to get points.

Those aren’t efficient shots (Rubio is shooting 41 percent from mid this season), especially after very little ball movement with a defender in his face.

The problem is there aren’t many better answers on the roster. Tyler Johnson has been resuscitated over the past few games, but is still giving the Suns very little and rarely has the ball in his hands. Kelly Oubre Jr. has never been a consistent shot creator despite better efficiency in Phoenix than Washington.

One option could have been Dario Saric, who was hot early and attacked the glass. Williams didn’t go back to him until there were about four minutes left in the game. While it’s a peculiar decision in the context of a game in which Saric had a double-double in just 22 minutes and typically plays more, it’s not as if Saric is an elite creator, either.

The Suns just don’t have a player on the roster who solves this problem.

What they do have — or should — is a cohesive team defensive concept. Except lately, they’ve entirely abandoned the aggressive help that was a strength early in the year and are 27th in defense over the past two weeks according to Cleaning the Glass.

Too many minutes for Frank Kaminsky as the anchor of the defense have shown opposing teams they can attack the Suns by relentlessly sending their perimeter players at the basket.

After a positive start to the season, Kaminsky is now basically a neutral statistically on defense, signaling a downtick lately. There is probably a spot for him in the rotation as a floor-spacer in limited minutes, but at the 5, he opens the Suns up to too many simple pick-and-roll plays like this lob to Willie Cauley-Stein.

As with the backup guard spot, there isn’t an obvious fix. Cheick Diallo scored efficiently in November when he played, but is a liability on defense and is even smaller than Kaminsky. We’ve already seen Baynes’ breaking point from a minutes perspective.

One option, again, could be more Saric. Playing the Croatian big man at the 5 generally hurts the at-rim defense, but allows the Suns to put more length and athleticism on the floor as well as more players who can execute the defensive system.

The Rubio-Booker-Oubre-Mikal Bridges-Saric lineup is plus-5.8 across 69 possessions this year, per Cleaning the Glass. Going small typically has worked against the Suns this season, but consolidating the rotation (i.e. sticking with Jevon Carter and Tyler Johnson) could allow the Suns to gain better evidence for or against certain lineups. It seems that one which would be worth revisiting is putting Saric at the 5.

Though the Suns’ current road-trip is against mostly beatable teams (outside the Lakers, though they’re dealing with injuries), this version of the Suns shouldn’t be favored against anybody. They are losing their identity, playing outside themselves, and losing. A lot.

Burks may have had 9 points on a perfect 4-4 from the field in the fourth quarter, but Burks didn’t beat the Suns in San Francisco on Friday night. They beat themselves.

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