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Suns starters missing their edge to kick off new season

The Phoenix Suns starters just didn’t have the juice to keep up with a hungry Nuggets team

NBA: Finals-Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns loss to the Denver Nuggets on opening night had the vibe of a team who felt they’d already ‘arrived’ and were expecting an easy win after building a 16-point lead late in the second quarter.

When Suns, in front of their home crowd, took a 57-41 lead with just under two minutes left in the half (1:27), against a Nuggets team they had swept just two months ago in the 2021 Playoffs, they must have felt the game was already over.

Yet, the Nuggets declined to acquiesce.

In fact, Denver outscored the Suns 10-1 to close the half, including a buzzer-beating rainbow three from Nikola Jokic to enter halftime only down seven points, and blew out of halftime with a 23-7 burst in the third quarter to take a lead.

“I thought that two-minute segment in the second quarter kind of took our fans out of the game,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said afterward. “We were in the teens with the lead and then it went to seven quickly, and then that momentum shifted quickly.”

The Suns scored only 40 second half points after a 38-point second quarter, shooting just 35% in the third and fourth quarters combined. The Suns biggest problem on Wednesday was their biggest strength the last two seasons: mid-range shots. On Wednesday night, the Suns clanked middy after middy.

Denver became the aggressor, generating steals and transition points, while the Suns looked stuck in mud.

If you wondered whether the Nuggets cared much about this game against the Suns, look no further...

“It felt good,” Nuggets guard Wil Barton said afterward. “When a team comes out and embarrasses you like they did to us last year, that feeling doesn’t go away, it stings until you get back on the court. So to come here, in their building and get a win, it’s good.”

“To come in here and open the season against a very good basketball team, a tough place to play, I’m really, really proud of our guys,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We responded after the half after a very disappointing second quarter, so that’s what you like to see.”

Devin Booker made only 3 of 15 shots on the night, including just 1 of 8 inside the three point line (he was 2-7 behind the line, an uncharacteristic balance of threes to twos). He wasn’t alone on the shooting problems — as a team the Suns made 37.8% of their threes (good!) but just 44% of their two point shots (bad!).

“Offensively, I think we got some good shots and missed it,” Booker said later. “Missed layups, missed free throws, nothing that we usually do.”

“We missed a ton of shots and put them in transition,” Williams said. “We certainly didn’t have the body movement or ball movement on offense that just flattens teams out and breaks them down.”

Jae Crowder went 0-5 from the field (all threes). Mikal Bridges led the team with 16 points, but it took 16 shots to get there. The starting unit as a whole was awful, getting outscored by 20+ points in the game versus the Nuggets starters.

Yet every person who took the podium — Monty Williams, Mikal Bridges, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton — explained that the offensive problems stemmed from playing bad bad defense.

“Overall, we just didn’t play our game starting on the defensive end,” Booker said. “Coach came in, you can’t control if you’re making or missing shots, but I said it all last year, we have to defend.”

“100 percent, it starts with our defense,” Bridges said.

“Defense is what creates our offense on this team,” Ayton said. “Fatigue kicks in and (we don’t get) that second effort of getting back on defense and playing the right way.”

Ayton’s comment on fatigue appeared on point. The Suns as a team looked mired in molasses all game — possibly from playing fewer minutes in preseason, possibly as a mental hangover from the long playoff run, possibly from just simply being tired.

But Booker, of course, said the Suns can’t use that as an excuse. The Suns immediately embark on a back-to-back on Friday and Saturday night against the last two teams they blew out in preseason: Lakers on Friday, then Blazers on Saturday.

“It’s going to be a tough one in LA,” Booker said. “They’re looking for a win also, and same with Portland. I don’t know how they did tonight if they played, but it’s the NBA and it’s back. The games are coming and we understand that. Like I said, it’s a long season, 82 games plus for us, and we realize that.”

The Lakers are on a 10-game losing streak since the Drummond-clowning game against the Suns in the first round of last year’s playoffs (0-3 in playoffs, 0-6 in preseason, 0-1 regular season). Of course the preseason doesn’t really matter, and the trio of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook were together for only 2 or 3 of those games anyway. They are Desperate with a capital D for a win. And on Friday they are at home, with the Suns game certainly circled on the calendar as a need-win.

Then it’s the Blazers on the back-to-back. The Blazers lost on opening night at home to the Kings, and will be desperate for their own win on Saturday versus the Suns.

Both the Lakers (2 days off) and Blazers (2 days off) will be at well rested against the Suns, who will play three games in four days to start the season.

Trying new things

Opening night was a chance to experiment, which comes out as false in some ways until they get comfortable.

Ayton got five post-up chances in the game’s opening minutes, a development that Monty Williams appreciated but later said the sheer volume (5 post ups in 5 minutes) was not real Suns basketball.

“We certainly didn’t have the body movement or ball movement on offense that just flattens teams out and breaks them down,” Williams said. “We didn’t see that consistently tonight.”

In other developments, Mikal Bridges was a lot more aggressive with on-ball drives than last year, while Devin Booker spent more time behind the three point line than inside it. It appears the Suns are willing to experiment with Bridges taking some of the Booker plays to see if he can handle being a third on-ball threat in the starting unit’s offense. As a result, the Suns had more missed shots than we’ve come to expect over the past year.

Likely, these developments — more Ayton paint touches, more Bridges drives, more Booker threes vs. twos — will remain in some form this season, along with more balanced ball handling in the second unit between Cam Payne (who is sneaky good at just getting his own shot over passing to others) and Landry Shamet (who is sneaky good at running the offense at times).

It will just take some for new wrinkles to smooth out.

Now the Bright Side

The Suns newly formed Cam-Sham-Jam second unit played well in the season opener.

New acquisition Landry Shamet was a shooting star, making 4 of 5 shots, including 3-3 on three-pointers as Booker’s backup.

“Shamet’s the man,” Bridges said of his teammate. “Been a fan ever since Philly. I thought he was going to be my teammate. Been a fan of Sham, man. He works hard, can do everything, not just a shooter. He’s just a great player.”

The group of Cam Payne, Cameron Johnson, Landry Shamet, Abdel Nader and JaVale McGee combined to shoot 14-30 from the field, including 7-12 on threes, and played good defense on the Nuggets second unit. They were the sole reason the Suns didn’t lose this game by 30.

Ayton’s mental state

We had not had a chance to talk to Deandre Ayton since the extension talks broke off, so everyone was curious how Ayton would play and in what kind of mental state he would approach the season.

“One thing about me, throughout my whole life I’ve always learned to control what I can control,” Ayton said of the contract issues that will make him a restricted free agent next summer. “At the same time, obviously I’m disappointed, but I’m still trying to get us back to the Finals. I still have to represent the team and myself as well. I’m just a competitor, man. I just like to compete to the best. Every time I’m in between the lines that’s what you’re going to see out of me, nothing else.”

Ayton started the game hot, making 4 of 5 shots for 8 points and grabbing 3 rebounds in the first 5 minutes. He had a nice post-up in there, and later made his first three pointer of the season.

But then the Suns — as they did a lot last year too — veered away from Ayton after the first quarter. He spread that same production over the rest of the game (5 more shots, 7 more points, 3 more rebounds in 28 more minutes). As you know, the offensive touches are not much in his control, but his lack of rebounds were a bigger concern.

Ayton did have more trouble with Jokic on Wednesday than he’d had in the playoffs. Overall, Jokic had 27 points on 22 shots.

Funny moment

Ayton tied his career high in three-point shot attempts (3) in the game, so I asked him about that in the post-game media session.

Me: “You tied a career-high in three pointers tonight—”

Duane Rankin, AZ Republic/central, quietly interjected: “—attempts—”

Me: “Yes, attempts.”

Ayton (laughing at Duane): “Heyyyy, let me live a little!”

DA went on to say his usual comments on threes, that he’s getting more and more comfortable at when to take them in the offense and will be taking more this season than every before.

Ayton has attempted three threes only one other time in his career — in the 2020 Bubble vs. the Wizards, making two of three — so for him to pop three of them on opening night could be a sign of the lid being blown off his ceiling of 20 total attempts last year in 72 games and 37 total attempts his first three years.

If Ayton can become a threat from range, like Jokic and other big men, the driving lanes for his teammates will open even wider as the big will have to defend him closer to the line. He doesn’t need to make a ton of them. He just needs to be threat to take them and make a respectable amount (30+%).

Next Up

The Suns travel to LA today to prepare for the Lakers on Friday. As mentioned above, the Lakers are desperate for a win with their new three-MVP-caliber star studded lineup.

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