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Aftermath: Suns call themselves ‘unprofessional’ in collapse to Kings

The Phoenix Suns blew a 12-point first half lead for the second time in a week. Let’s break it down.

NBA: Preseason-Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams says the team needs to be “more consistent” to get wins, but that they are just as locked in mentally as last season.

Center Deandre Ayton used much more blunt language.

“The third quarter was unprofessional,” Ayton said of the Suns lazy start to the second half that began with an 8-point Suns lead and ended with a 6-point deficit by the end of the third. “It wasn’t us.”

The Suns scored only 15 points in the third quarter while committing 6 turnovers in that period alone.

The game looked a lot like a week earlier, in the home opener, when the Suns had a 16-point late-second quarter lead on the Nuggets only to give up a 10-1 run to close the half and come out flat in the second half on their way to an opening night loss.

This time, the Suns had an 12-point lead late in the second quarter on the Kings, only to give up a pair of Kings buckets to close the half and come out flat in the second half on their way to another loss.

The Suns are now 1-3 on the season, all against Western Conference opponents, and now sit 12th in the West out of 15 teams. There are only 78 games to go before playoff seeding is finalized.

“It’s unacceptable,” Ayton said. “Because the expectation and the type of energy and intensity teams are coming with to beat us is real. We just can’t sit back and think we’re going to win.”

Jae Crowder talked about the same things, saying they need to stop talking about how teams are coming for them and start playing like it.

“We have to find a way to take that challenge on for 48 minutes and quit talking when the game is over,” Crowder said. “About how teams are coming, respecting us now, and we’re getting team’s best shots. We have to get back to being the hunter and stepping into the ring, and right now we’re not.”

After a week of games, the Suns have one of the league’s worst defenses (27th of 30) and worst offenses (20th) after ranking 6th and 7th, respectively, a year ago with all the same starters returning.

How are the Suns losing so badly?

Lack of focus

Coach Williams says he thinks the team is still hurting from the Finals loss, but is just as locked in as years past. Yet the team’s mentality is definitely different, and so far not in a good way.

“We have to get back to being the hunter, instead of just being hunted,” forward Jae Crowder said. “In each game, we talk about how teams are coming at us and we’re stepping up the challenge, but not for 48 minutes.”

Indeed, the Suns have had big second-quarter leads in three of four games this season only to lose two of those because they inexplicably took their foot off the gas.

“I would say tonight we played with our food a little bit,” Ayton said afterward.

For the past 18 months, since the Bubble started, the Suns embodied that ‘hunter’ mentality of beating everyone in front of them. They had the league’s best overall record in that span at 73-29 (including 8-0 Bubble, 51-21 regular season, 14-8 playoffs). Every single game, every play, every possession was a ‘locked in’ prove-it moment.

But this year, the feeling is different. Now the Suns are the hunted, and they’re acting like it. This is unfamiliar territory for a mostly young team whose veteran leaders, Jae Crowder and Chris Paul, are off to a rocky start. Crowder, the designated three point launcher, is shooting only 32% from the field and 18% on threes. Chris Paul is shooting just 39% from the field, including 30% on threes. They are combining for only 20 points per game on 18 shots after combining for almost 27 points on 20 shots last season.

While they struggle, the Suns other players have to step up but they are not stepping up enough. In one small example, both Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson clanked super-wide-open threes in the fourth quarter that would have cut the Kings lead to six. I’ll get more into three-point shooting in a bit. For now, suffice to say the Suns other players failed to deliver under pressure...until Point Book shook them loose.

Point Book

With Chris Paul struggling, Cameron Payne out (hamstring) and the Suns needing fast-paced three-point shooting in a 10-point 4th-quarter deficit, Monty Williams turned to Point Book.

Landry Shamet checked in for Chris Paul at the 6:55 mark of the fourth (CP’s normal rest point) rather than Elfrid Payton, putting Booker in charge as the man running the show. At that point, the Suns had only scored 24 second-half points in 17 minutes.

Over the next 6.5 minutes, the Suns outscored the Kings 22-12 with Booker scoring or assisting on 20 of the Suns 22 points, to tie the game at 107-107 with 37 seconds left.

“You saw desperate basketball, you saw us play desperate,” forward Jae Crowder said of the fourth quarter run. “A switch went off, we felt like we were about to get beat.”

How did the Suns not feel like they were getting beat any earlier in the game? Like, when they managed to turn a 12-point lead into a 12-point deficit before the end of the third quarter?

I digress.

The Suns got another stop and a chance to win with a tie game, but Chris Paul dribbled out most of the shot clock before giving the ball to Devin Booker for the potential heavily-contested game winner. Booker could only dance a couple seconds before hoisting a highly contested fadeaway that clanked off the rim as the shot clock expired, leaving the Kings 3.7 seconds to win the game or let it go to overtime. They chose the former.

Devin Booker is still rounding into game shape, so his 31-point, 8-assist, 6-rebound game against the Kings was welcome sight despite the loss.

Maybe this loss to an eminently beatable Kings team is the kick in the pants the team needs to realize no one going to hand them wins this year just because they’re a good team.

“It’s guys in the locker room,” Jae Crowder said of who needs to change the mindset of the team. “We have to have these uncomfortable conversations to get us out of these situations and try to get us to put our best foot forward. Right now, it’s starting tonight. We had an uncomfortable conversation that our team needed, and we need those to grow because it’s a different season. Different things are happening and our approach, our mindset has to change a little bit.”

Let’s hope they don’t pile up too many more of these losses before getting their mental focus back.

Three-point shooting...ughhh

Last season, the Suns were one of the league’s best teams on both offense and defense in three-point shooting. They made (13.1 to 11.6) and attempted (34.6 to 32.8) more than their opponent, finishing among the top 5 teams in the league in three-point defense — 5th in makes allowed and % allowed (34.8%). Those marks helped the Suns be one of the best teams in the league.

This year is another story, despite the same scheme and (mostly) same personnel. All five starters are back and three of the top bench players as well.

This year they’re getting almost doubled up on makes (9.8 makes per game to the opponents’ 17) and attempts (29.8 to 40.3). The 17 makes allowed is worst in the league, and the 42.2% field goal percentage allowed is worst as well.

What’s going wrong there? The coach and players say the problem is over-helping, meaning the weak side defender is shading too far off his man toward the ball handler, allowing kick outs for open threes on a frightening level. Crowder says they remind each other in the huddle not to over-help, but then it happens again anyway.

Three days of practice has not helped things, as the Kings made 14 of their last 28 attempts after a 1-for-10 start that helped the Suns take the lead.

If the Suns are going to get better this year, it has to start at the three point line.

“It’s something we have to rectify,” coach Monty Williams said. “The details of it, we kind of see it in game, but I have to look at the film. But right now, we’re over-helping a lot and losing our man behind us, watching the ball. That’s something that we haven’t done.”

He recognized they aren’t generating enough of their own threes as well. The combination of the two is devastating to their chances of winning games.

“It’s early in the season, but we can’t keep using that as an excuse,” Williams said. “We’ve got to get it right, and the consistency thing is something that keeps popping up in my mind. We just haven’t been as consistent as we need to be.”

The Ayton freeze-out

First, the facts:

  1. Deandre Ayton had 11 shots in the first half, resulting 16 points on 8-11 shooting.
  2. Deandre Ayton had 1 shot in the second half, leading to just 5 points on 1-1 shooting + 4 made free throws.

“It’s a conundrum, for sure,” coach Monty Williams said. “In the first quarter he was setting screens and diving, and like I said, we just haven’t been consistent.”

Seems like a freeze-out right? Seems like it’s the same problem since last year when Ayton would score more in the first half than the second half.

Well, actually, it’s part Ayton’s problem, part Kings defense, part Chris Paul’s problem and part Monty Williams’ problem.

Both Williams and Ayton cited Ayton’s hard rolls to the rim in the first half that sprung him loose for 4 dunks on half-court pick-and-roll sets to make up his first 8 points. The Kings big men helped open Ayton up. They played tight on Paul on the pick-and-roll, giving Ayton the room he needed to get a clear path to the rim. Holmes’ attention on Paul allowed Paul to lob over top of Holmes for the easy dunk.

When you review the second half opening, where the Suns failed to score on something like 92 straight possessions, the same sets that got Ayton open in the first quarter failed to work here. I don’t have the GIFs, so you’ll have to trust me.

The Kings tweaked their defense at halftime to have Richaun Holmes/Alex Len sink halfway into the paint on pick-and-rolls, staying between Ayton and the rim, giving Chris Paul all the space he needed to take his patented middy while discouraging Ayton from rolling. Normally, this is the Kings putting themselves in no-mans land — meaning the big is not close enough to either Paul or Ayton to do anything good. But in this game, in this quarter, the middle ground confused the Suns just enough to be effective.

Ayton settled, allowing the Kings defender to stay between him and the rim, by barely moving after seeing Holmes in drop coverage. He did not force the action, or give Paul a lob lane to finish anyway.

Paul got frustrated. Instead of working himself into an easy middy like last year, he drifted around hoping for anything else to develop and ended up taking bad shot after bad shot. Paul’s inability to use that extra space for a driving layup at this point in his career really hurts him if his middy is off. He missed 5 of 6 shots with a turnover in this stretch as the Kings outscored the Suns 21-10 to take the lead.

Monty Williams was at fault too, letting the offense veer entirely away from the Paul-to-Ayton pick and roll that opens up the rest of their offense.

This is a career-long issue with Ayton on offense, by the way.

Since his rookie season, he’s scored more and taken more shots in the first half than the second. Dating all the way back to Igor Kokoskov. The problem is that defenses adjust at halftime to put more bodies between Ayton and the rim, to which Ayton reacts by being less aggressive and the Suns use both indicators to look in other directions.

This is not all on Ayton, and not all on Monty or on Chris Paul. It’s a collective decision to let the other team’s defensive adjustments to take Ayton out of the offense — of both his own volition and the Suns’ — to use the extra space being given to the jump shooters. Last year, the Suns were one of the best in the league at making those open jumpers. This year, so far anyway, they’re just not.

Will it ever change? Maybe not. A packed paint is not a good place to throw the ball. Lobs and bounce passes get deflected or blocked by half dozen arms, as I’m sure you can recall many a time. And Ayton at this point doesn’t bring anything else outside the paint to the table that’s better than any teammate. Would you rather see Ayton pop a middy or Chris Paul or Devin Booker or Mikal Bridges? I’d rather any of those other three, to be honest.

And so would Ayton.

“I think it’s just us not sharing the ball,” he said with a shake of the head, when asked about getting only one second half shot. “We’re a team that shares the ball, moves the ball. We try to get at least 30 assists. That’s Suns basketball. It was a little off today, but I just really respect our guys.”

Meaning, it’s not about his number of shots. It’s about the team getting the best shots to win the game. Ayton has said before that the other team packing the paint on him to deter his rim runs is great for the rest of the team to get open shots as a result.

They just need to start making them.

Okay that’s all I’ve got time for today. Lots to unpack here, for a 1-3 team.

Bottom line: consistency and execution. Everyone’s got to get better.

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