For the first time all season, in their 33rd game, the Phoenix Suns had all of their roster players available to play.
But even more frustrating, Monday night was only the second game all season where the Suns had all four of their most impactful players available to play: Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Aron Baynes. You can argue the inclusion of Kelly Oubre Jr. or Mikal Bridges or Dario Saric in that top four, but the truth is that the team’s offense and defense were built around the availability of the two guards and two centers this season.
You might even call them the “core four”.
Those four are 2-0 with wins over the Kings on opening night and the Trail Blazers two and a half months later. Of course, that’s a small sample size but you could see in each of those games how the roster was envisioned to work around the pair of playmakers and pair of centers.
On Monday night in the win over the Blazers, the two centers combined for 19 points and 21 rebounds (8 offensive) in 48 minutes while the two playmakers combined for 51 points, 20 assists and 11 rebounds in just over 72 minutes. You could see how the Suns wings were assembled to swirl around them for threes and slashes to the basket in a dance of movement that fits the style of Oubre, Bridges and rookie Cameron Johnson. When they need speed, like on Monday, Monty goes with three of the core four plus a couple of wings. When they need some extra size, there’s Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky (who combined for only 17 minutes on Monday) to add some lumber while also providing some three-point shooting.
You saw the vision on Monday night. You saw how the roster and schemes were built to succeed when these players are available. Let’s just hope we get a few more chances to see them evolve in 2020.
Quick guess. How long do you think it’s been since the Suns had a record as good as 13-20 after 33 games?
If guessed 2013-14, you’d be wrong. For sure, the upstart Suns were 20-13 after 33 games that year on the way to a 48-34 record and justmissed the playoffs.
In 2014-15, the Suns were 18-15 after 33 games on the way to a 38-33 record before losing 10 of their last 11 to cap off the most unnecessarily dramatic meltdown of the millennium.
By that time, there were only two wheels on the mobile brothel known as the Suns franchise. Their 33-game records since: 12-21, 10-23, 11-22, 8-25.
Those records were not much worse than this year’s 13-20, but this one feels different doesn’t it? While each of the last four years went downhill from that point, this year’s Suns team looks to be getting better.
What the Suns do in January will likely set the stage for the rest of the season, good or bad. This month’s schedule is the easiest of the year and a full squad should be able to pull back to .500 or close to it by the trade deadline. If the Suns are close to .500, then I would expect a trade to acquire a rotational guard who can play the role Tyler Johnson was supposed to play and fill in those minutes behind both Booker and Rubio. None of the young backups have played consistently enough to be trusted in key situations if there’s a playoff race to run.
No more threes?
One of the more interesting developments has been Devin Booker’s lost three-point stroke. Over six games prior to Monday night, Booker had drained only 2 of 24 threes and turned to his excellent mid-range and basket-attacking game instead.
In weekend games against the Warriors and Kings, Booker was 26 of 37 inside the arc, plus 11-14 at the free throw line, but just 1 of 10 beyond it.
So on Monday night, Booker declined to even take a three at all. He made 9 of 19 shots inside the arc, plus 15 of 15 at the free throw line, to help lead the Suns to victory.
- 34 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds (L)
- 32 points, 10 assists, 2 rebounds (W)
- 33 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds (W)
Will Booker return to his three-point shooting? Of course. At some point, he will find his rhythm again. Two years ago, he was a 38% three point shooter on 7+ attempts per game. And until his recent 6-game slump this year, he was a 40% three point shooter in 5+ attempts per game.
For now, enjoy the magic of Booker’s drives, dishes and, hopefully, some more Suns wins.
The good Kelly
At his best, Kelly Oubre Jr. ignites the crowd and his team with his infectious play.
Oubre was missing in action in Friday’s loss, collecting a pair of fouls in the first 73 seconds of the game and finished with just 6 points (breaking a streak of 10 straight 13+ point games) in 22 minutes of play.
But over the last two wins, Oubre has scored 49 points (including 9 of 14 threes), grabbed 20 rebounds and 5 steals, and dished out 7 assists in two of his best games of the season.
Oubre might not be among my “core four” for the Suns because of his inconsistent impact on the game, but he has ignited the team in many of their best wins this year and is a good barometer of whether the team will be bad, okay or good on any given night.
The Suns are 8-6 in games Oubre has scored 20+ points (5-14 when he doesn’t), 9-5 when he makes at least half his shots (4-15 when he doesn’t), and 4-2 when he has 9+ rebounds (9-18 when he doesn’t).
“Good Kelly” is good for business. And this year, with injuries to Booker, Rubio, Ayton and Baynes, the Suns have had to turn to Oubre more often as a primary scorer than they would like. If his performance on Monday night is any indication, Oubre can absolutely thrive in a 4th-option role who can turn the tide of a game.
The Suns go to Los Angeles to play the Lakers on Wednesday night.
NBA players. In LA. On New Year’s Eve. We’ll see who partied the most when they square off on New Year’s Day.