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Ayton’s ‘worst game,’ Suns defensive lapses lead to disappointing loss to playoff-bound Jazz

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The Suns failed to keep their momentum alive against a Jazz team that enforced their physicality onto Phoenix.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns came into Wednesday’s game against the Utah Jazz with one of the league’s worst records, facing a team on a roll with more than twice as many wins, but after a tight game that was closer than the final score, the Suns lamented their own mistakes rather than chalking up another “good loss.”

For one thing, Deandre Ayton had a terrible game against one of the league’s premiere defenders, Rudy Gobert, known as the “Stifle Tower.”

I like that Ayton recognizes his good and bad games, and is always quick to criticize himself.

On the offensive end, he clearly had the worst game of his career, scoring only two points and not getting to the line for a single free throw.

But at least on defense he was effective at times, and was a big part of the Suns staying in the game all the way to mid-fourth quarter when the Jazz turned a tenuous 9-point lead into 21 in what seemed like a blink of an eye.

Which leads us to the other reason the Suns lost. After keeping it close for three quarters, the Suns allowed a 34-14 run to the Jazz in the fourth quarter.

“I think there was a little bit of a loss of attention to detail down the stretch,” Tyler Johnson said. “The last couple games, we were actually forcing misses. We were competing on the ball, we were moving around everywhere, helping each other and making teams miss. Today, I think we were just kinda hoping that they missed.”

The Suns fought hard with what I liken to a scramble drill for 35 minutes and 55 seconds, hustling, helping and getting turnovers to hold down the Jazz just enough to stay with them.

“I think our approach, our energy was there,” Suns coach Igor Kokoskov said. “We knew that we were playing a good team, a team to compete and play hard.”

But that 34-14 run came in two waves, mostly from successive long-range bombs by Joe Ingles, Donovan Mitchell and others. The Suns just could not match.

“It was kind of surprising for me,” coach Igor Kokoskov said of the fourth quarter breakdowns. “The game plan we established at the start of the game, we didn’t follow all the way to the end of the game. Just little things when it comes to the coverages, defensive coverages, in certain situations.”

This isn’t anything new when it comes to a whole 16-53 season, tied for the fewest wins in the 51-year franchise history and five wins behind the second-fewest (21) that was set just last year with only 13 to play.

But the team has grown in recent weeks, and both the steady play-caller and head coach were shocked at the breakdowns.

Then again, this was the Utah Jazz, who boast the second-best defense in the entire league and whose front line of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors just dominate the smaller Suns in the paint. And on the perimeter, players like Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio play a physical game of defense as well.

“When it comes to the contact,” Igor said of the Jazz. “The physicality, and the little things, when it comes to getting open, holding the screen, setting the screen, rolling to the basket, executing, they just had more physicality on both sides of the court. We felt it. We felt them and they didn’t feel us.”

Ayton feels terrible about how he played — two points on nine shots, and only nine rebounds. Yes, he had two steals and a big block on Gobert at one point, but he just wasn’t engaged the whole time.

“This was definitely the worst game I’ve ever played,” Ayton said. “The worst. By far.”

So the Suns know what they did wrong, and how they can be better for the next game and that’s some real progress over earlier in the season.

They talked about breakdowns in specific places in the game, and Ayton knows he needs to bring it no matter what giant he’s going against.

This team is making progress. They have another tough one against the high-flying Rockets this weekend, but then they get to face a Pelicans team missing Jrue Holiday know, on top of minute-limited Anthony Davis.

Let’s see how the team responds.