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‘We competed our ass off’: Suns can keep up with West’s best if they play the right way

Despite losses to Golden State and Houston, the Suns showed the progress they’ve made playing aggressively and executing the game plan.

Golden State Warriors v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

“You have to fail.”

Tyler Johnson has only been around the Suns for two days but he might as well be summing up their entire season. In fact he’s not even talking about the broader structure of a season but his own tribulations in his first game as a Sun, learning Igor Kokoskov’s ball-movement heavy offense. Johnson is saying in order to improve and gain consistency one must try, screw up and understand how to move forward.

This week, in three games against the cream of the Western Conference crop, the Suns saw not only many failures but perhaps their way forward.

James Harden came to the city where he played in college on Monday to continue his streak of 30-plus point scoring performances and took over in the fourth quarter to kill the Suns’ hopes of their first win in weeks. The Suns defended Harden unlike any ball-handler all year, running through the game plan at shootaround in the morning that entailed pressuring Harden on the perimeter, sending double teams as often as possible.

The reigning MVP has seen every coverage. His versatile skill set is the one the Suns see as a blueprint for Devin Booker going forward but on Monday, Harden showed why he’s not to be compared with young guns. Thirteen of Harden’s 44 points came in the fourth quarter as he kept the Suns’ comeback at bay with Booker on the bench to push the Rockets to 31-22.

“He’s a threat at all times -- there’s not a possession where there’s a chance that he can’t score,” Booker said. “Every possession he has that mindset… whether that’s scoring the ball or making a play for a teammate, whatever he has to do.

“It’s tough to guard, it’s every possession.”

While Booker is the playmaker earning comparisons to Harden, it was Mikal Bridges, the Suns’ rookie stopper, who had to defend the searing hot former Sun Devil.

“He’s really tough, he can really dribble the ball really well, shoot the ball from anywhere in the gym and create fouls really well, so he’s really tough,” Bridges said of Harden. “We tried to trap him and every time he would make the right pass.

“He is what I thought he was going to be.”

Houston also forced the Suns to be crisp with their switching defense, so Kokoskov played more “Point Book” lineups with multiple wings on the court to give the team flexibility defending multiple players on a single possession. That left Bridges isolated on point guard Chris Paul in one of the most exciting moments of the game. With a low center of gravity and bouncy handle, Paul can blow by anyone -- usually. Bridges held his ground and forced a bad shot that clanked out.

Switching was the key four days later, back at home, as the Suns faced off against the Warriors and their five-All-Star starting unit. Kokoskov again referenced the value of failure against the pristine halfcourt offense Golden State runs to get open shots for their superstars.

“This is a game of mistakes,” he said. “Nobody plays a perfect game. They made us pay and that’s what a good team is doing. … Especially in the last five minutes of the game, they were so precise.

“Late switch, miscommunication, late shifts from the weak side, they made us pay. It’s just a learning experience for young guys and that’s a poise that a veteran team, a team with a high IQ -- they knew how to play the game.”

Sure enough, Golden State did run away in the final few minutes, pulling out a 29-13 run to close the game. Despite a career night in terms of consistency and impact for Deandre Ayton and perhaps Kelly Oubre Jr.’s best game in Phoenix, the Warriors won. That’s what they do.

This Suns team is not one that revels in moral victories but genuinely competing with the two-time defending champions has to instill some confidence and comfort for a team struggling through its 13th straight loss.

“I thought we competed our ass off today and it just came down to a few plays there at the end,” the newcomer Johnson said. “They’re world champions so they kind of took off on us but I thought for the most part aside from a few things -- easily fixable -- I thought it was a good day.

“It’s hard to win in this league, no matter who you’re playing. The biggest thing is we continue to make those (hustle) plays and continue to learn from each other.”

After a season of preaching the value of experience, fight and perseverance -- and there were surely times it felt the Suns had none of the three -- Kokoskov’s team is competing more consistently even when injuries or bad luck strike. Matching up against the best can put into perspective what is needed to grow but also the ability to reach the next level.

“We just played hard, that’s the biggest thing,” Bridges said. “We just gotta be locked in for the whole 48 minutes, that’s all I ask of anybody and that’s what we did.”