Over the last two nights, the Phoenix Suns have lost to two of the worst teams in the NBA. At home. With a mostly healthy roster. And a prime opportunity to get within 2.5 games of the 8th seed.
The Pistons came in Friday night on a 7-game losing streak, having traded/released three of their starters around the trade deadline in order to tank out the season for draft pick lottery balls. But former Suns flameout Brandon Knight sunk 5 threes on the way to a 19-point outing he hasn’t touched in more than three years.
The Warriors came in Saturday night on a 8-game losing streak, having traded three of their starters at the trade deadline, after already missing two All-Stars for the season already. They even played on Saturday night without their last remaining All-Star Draymond Green.
And worst, the Warriors started the Suns’ former draft busts Marquese Chriss (11 points, 9 rebounds) and Dragan Bender (13 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks) while putting the hammer down on the Suns spirits in the second half. That was Bender’s best outing of the season, and best since last March as a Phoenix Sun.
The Warriors (12-47 on the year) outscored the Suns 54-37 in the second half, and held the Suns to just 58 points over the last 3 quarters to notch a feel-good win.
“Two nights in a row, we have been outplayed from an effort standpoint,“ Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “We certainly didn’t share the ball. Defensively, we don’t guard anybody. We haven’t guarded anybody the last two nights. That is totally on me.”
The Suns are now an ugly 11-21 at home (vs. 13-16 on the road). Their worst losses seem to come right here in Phoenix, at the worst times. And this weekend capped all of them.
Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton both slipped out of the locker room before media arrived for postgame interviews. It appears that Mikal Bridges was the lone soldier willing to talk about the game. And he did not hold back.
“I think they just went on runs defensively,” Bridges said after the game. “And we kind of put our head down and then started missing some shots, then head down some more. I think it was just our mentality (was) very weak. Everybody. We were just missing shots, (the Warriors) scored, head down. So I think just us being mentally weak out there and they played harder than us and that’s the biggest thing.”
That’s your 23-year old small forward, less than two years out from winning the college national championship at Villanova. As a rookie in the NBA, Bridges won fewer games in 2018-19 for the Suns than he did in in his final year at Villanova. In fact, he may experience that again in 2019-20. Villanova won 36 games in Mikal’s final year on their way to a NCAA championship.
He talked about every team losing players (note my comments on the Warriors above), so he says the Suns cannot hang their heads over losing Kelly Oubre Jr. after that statement win over the Utah Jazz.
“I think just go home, look yourself in the mirror and see if you really want this,” Bridges said. “If you really want to win and if you really want to contribute. I think that’s the biggest thing. We just have to pick it up and just be better.”
Many of us, including the players, have been holding out hope for a playoff run in the second half. Much of that hope hung on the potential of a full-health squad after the break. They even plastered the Jazz in Utah to close out a post-break 2-1 road trip.
But then Oubre went down (torn meniscus), and it appears the Suns spirits went right down with it.
“We have to stop feeling sorry for ourselves because of the injuries,” coach Monty Williams said. “Whatever the case may be. Thinking we don’t have enough... We have enough. We had an 18-point lead in this game if I recall.”
The Suns are now 5.5 games back of the 8th seed, and 12 games under .500 overall. The season is over, in terms of playoff chances. It was a nice run of hope — nicer than at any time in half a decade — but it’s over now. And it appears that loss of hope is exactly what’s running through the players’ heads.
“Forget all that,” Williams said. “We can’t talk about playoffs with that kind of effort. You can’t talk about playoffs when you are not willing to share the ball and stay together. Forget the playoffs.”
I’m a bit worried about Devin Booker’s mental state. His world has changed a lot in the past four weeks, and he does not seem to be handling it well on the basketball court for the Suns.
Outside his control, he lost a mentor that meant more to win than any of us realized. Since Kobe Bryant died on January 26, Booker has averaged 24.1 points on 43/35/92 shooting splits, with 6.3 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game. Before that, Booker was having a career year that got him onto the All-Star game: 26.7 points on 51/36/92 shooting splits, with 6.4 assists and 4.1 rebounds. That may not seem like much of a drop off to you, but the drop is significant.
More than the stats, Booker seems like an emotional shell of himself in recent weeks. First, it was the loss of Kobe weighing him down. Then the All-Star voting snub. Then, he got validated by the outpour of player requests to get him on the team to replace Damian Lillard (groin injury) and enjoyed All-Star weekend.
But did All-Star weekend, being surrounded and validated by the best of the best, leave him with a Suns hangover? I don’t know. This is just speculation. But Booker definitely does not appear rejuvenated by All-Star weekend. He just appears drained. Maybe it’s all the Kobe memorials and reminders. Maybe it’s finally getting something for all his hard work, to be an All-Star. Maybe it’s disappointment in yet another lost season in Phoenix, one that might sting more this year than prior years because they have been so much closer to good while still being bad than Booker has ever experienced in the NBA.
Whatever it is, I hope Devin can snap out of it. The Suns, his teammates, need him to be the guy who carried them this year into playoff contention in the first place. Without the best of Devin, we are going to continue to see the worst of valley basketball.
Yes, yes, I know it’s not all on Devin. Coach Monty Williams, veterans Ricky Rubio and Dario Saric and Aron Baynes should be leading the charge on how to be professional at all times, not matter the circumstances. How to play through disappointment. How to end the season on a high note.
“We have to get back to the foundation and essentials of what we were about pre Chicago and Utah,” Williams said. “We have a force of ours and a will. For whatever reason, when we come home, we haven’t consistently had that. We have to get it back. We have a lot of games left to get it back.”
There are 22 games remaining in this season. The next milestone should be 30 wins. The sooner the better. And then, if they can get to 33 wins, they can have a final record with fewer for 50 losses for the first time since 2015.