The Phoenix Suns barely won on Monday night — 109-104 over Charlotte — after giving up a 20-point halftime lead, partly because of their depleted ranks and partly because they took their feet off the gas and couldn’t find it again until late.
Kelly Oubre Jr. had missed all seven three-point attempts until the final minute when he drained two in a row to put the Suns up for good and spur a 12-0 finish to beat the Hornets in Charlotte.
The game will go down as a win and that’s all that matters. But under the covers, a few developments are worth keeping an eye on.
Big men keep disappearing
After Cheick Diallo and Aron Baynes both missed Monday’s road game in Charlotte, it seems the Phoenix Suns just can’t seem to catch a break with availability of their big men.
One day after center Deandre Ayton, the Suns second best player, kicks off the season with an 18 point, 11 rebound, 4 block monster showing in the season opening 29-point win over the Kings, he gets suspended for the next 25 games for getting caught taking a masking agent.
But that’s okay. In steps Aron Baynes as the new second-best player, posting career highs points (14.7), rebounds (5.7), assists (2.9), blocks (0.7), three-pointers (44%) and nearly everything else you can think of over the first 10 games of Ayton’s suspension. But then he went down for nearly as many with a strained hip and now a strained calf. Baynes is still day to day with the calf issue.
While those two were out, we got treated to a Cheick sighting. Deep backup big man Cheick Diallo got more than 15 minutes in two consecutive games and scored 39 points on 17-20 shooting while grabbing 16 rebounds. But now he’s out too. He didn’t even join the Suns on their 4-game road trip due to something just listed as ‘illness’.
On Monday night, the only big men available for the Suns were mainstays Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky. That’s it. The only other player over 6’7” active for the Suns was rookie bean pole Cameron Johnson, who himself was suffering from an illness but still able to play.
Dario and Frank are all that’s left of the big men, and that’s not a good sign for the Suns because they almost never both play well in the same game.
Saric struggled badly in the first three games without Baynes and Ayton, but has rebounded nicely over the past week with averages of 15 points (35% 3P shooting) and 12 rebounds over the past four. But his first three games without Baynes and Ayton were bad: 4.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 20% 3P shooting.
Frank had the opposite experience, starting with 14.3 points and 4.7 rebounds with 50% 3P shooting in the first three games after Baynes went down, but slumping to 6.5 and 4.3 on 7.7% 3P shooting in the last four. That’s not a typo.
Tough to win games when you can’t get more than one big man playing well at the same time. The Suns are now 2-6 since the Baynes injury compounded the Ayton loss.
Milky is back!
Ty Jerome — nicknamed Milky by Oubre — made his season debut on Monday night while Jevon Carter shook off the dust to join him, at the expense of Elie Okobo and Tyler Johnson.
The Suns bench group on Monday night included rookies Jerome and Cam along with second-year players Carter and Mikal Bridges. No wonder the Suns faltered in the second half when your bench group is so freaking young.
Jerome was good in the first half (+3 in 7 minutes) but not as good in the second (-4 in 5 minutes), finishing with 4 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds and 3 steals.
Carter made a pair of threes in a +4 first half (6 minutes), but didn’t do as well in a -7 second half (three minutes) where he didn’t register anything in the box score.
We’ll have to see how the guard rotation shakes out behind starters Devin Booker and Ricky Rubio, but I’d expect to see it settle with the rookie Jerome alongside veteran Tyler Johnson as we all predicted in the preseason. For now, Monty will have to mix and match to see what works.
Kelly is Mr. Clutch
When the Suns needed big plays, it was Kelly Oubre Jr. who delivered on Monday night. As a team, the Suns had taken but missed a boatload of threes until Oubre hit game-deciding back-to-back threes to move the Suns move 5-down to 1-up. But Oubre did more than just make threes. On the other end, he forced a pair of turnovers, helping spur a 12-0 Suns run to close the game.
Oubre isn’t great all the time. In fact, even in a single game he can run hot and cold. But he’s shows throughout the season that he’s got the ability to make game-deciding plays and that he’s not afraid of those moments in the least.
The Suns really needed Mikal Bridges to show up, and he did. Mikal had 12 points, a career-high 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and a block.
His three-point stroke still looks incredibly painful or it looks like a shot taken by a dude taken out of the stands during a timeout game trying to win $7,777. And he doesn’t like contact, or playing the power forward in small lineups.
But the rest of his game is so smooth as one of the best perimeter defenders in the game and a good slasher to the basket.
Deandre Ayton is down to the final seven games of his suspension. You can’t help but pine for his return as we watch this team struggle with rebounding and paint presence. Ayton isn’t excellent down low on defense, but he’s better than Frank, Dario and Cheick. Splitting the center minutes with Baynes would be a highly welcome sight.
Word is that he is working hard to get in good enough shape to have the same natural energy without help as he did in the season opener. What the heck he was masking with that diuretic, we don’t know. But there was no appeal and/or the appeal got rejected, which means he knew he was masking something.
Monty Williams has not promised a starting position back to Ayton when he returns, but everyone expects he will be in the starting lineup sooner than later. Ayton is just too talented and productive.
Baynes is more natural off the bench — he’s better in shorter minute bursts — though it’s the fourth quarter where playing time will be interesting. I can totally see Ayton starting the game but not finishing all the time. Ayton would be good to kick off the fourth quarter as a scorer with Rubio, who always starts the fourth. And then Baynes would return mid-quarter for his final stint. Monty could then decide the closer based on focus and game flow.