With the 123-100 loss to a Nuggets team that made a season-high 22 three pointers, including 15 in the first half to take a 21-point halftime lead, the Suns have now ‘dropped’ to a league-best 30-9 record on the season and a 17-5 at home.
Everyone was stunned. The undermanned Miami Heat, with a dozen players out for injury or COVID including a pair of max-level starters in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, bombed away from the three-point line all night to confound the Suns defense.
Miami’s 22 threes are the most by a Suns opponent this season. Additionally, the Heat shot 50.0 percent from the field on the game to the Suns’ 38.0 percent mark, as Phoenix fell to 2-8 on the year when their opponent shoots a higher field goal percentage.
To put this loss into perspective, the Suns have only lost 9 games of 39 games this season — though 6 of those losses have been by double digits. So when the Suns lose a game, they tend to lose it badly. Three of those big losses have occurred in the past month, from the Warriors’ 22-point blowout win on 12/3 and last night’s 23-point drubbing at the hands of the Heat with an ugly 15-point Celtics loss on New Year’s Eve.
“For us, it’s about the urgency and physicality from the jump,” head coach Monty Williams said afterward. “We’ve been in these games, I thought Boston last week was one of those games where we didn’t have the physicality. The next game against Charlotte we dialed it in.”
The Suns followed that Celtics loss with three straight 13+ point wins, beginning with beating the playoff-level Hornets by 34 in Charlotte amid their own COVID attrition with Ayton, Crowder and McGee all out.
The Suns are still a pretty good team. They have dished out 18 double-digit wins among their 30 wins and still have the league’s 3rd-best net margin for all 39 games at +7.1 points per game.
“We’ve won 30 games, we’ve proven that we know how to win games,” Williams said. “We’re going to have nights like this, but you don’t overreact and you don’t sweep the things that you need to teach and look at under the rug either. That’s what we’ve done since I’ve been there. We’ve been able to regroup and bounce back.”
On Saturday night, they re-introduced three big rotation players to their old roles as a pair of starters and a top reserve. However, all of Jae Crowder, Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee looked a step or three slow, with only Ayton picking up his intensity in the second half. McGee did not return in the second half, and Jae Crowder barely looked at the rim all game.
Especially in the first half, the Suns played a conservative ‘drop’ scheme that left open at least one shooter on every possession — a safe scheme to reduce wear and tear on a pair of COVID-recovering centers but the exact wrong thing to do with a five-out Miami scheme. The Heat got off 30 three-point attempts in the first half alone (they only average 36 per game this season) and made 15 of them. COVID, as you know, is a respiratory virus and it looks like all three guys were more winded than a player usually would be after 10 days off.
Still, the rest of the team looked slow too and they can’t blame COVID.
“It’s over. We have to move on to the next game and just learn, learn from it,” All-Star Devin Booker said. He made only 5 of 15 shots, but still scored 26 by playing aggressive on offense and generating, and making, 13 free throws. Booker mostly focused on the Suns lack of defensive effort for the loss. “I think they came out way too comfortable, and that’s not a team you want to give some confidence and let them see a couple easy ones go in. It was too loose, they got to do whatever they want, it was like they were running script out there. It’s on us to be more physical and junk up the game a little bit and take them out of their comfort zone.”
“Credit to [the Heat], they’re a really good team,” Mikal Bridges said. The Heat are now 25-15, winning games despite their injury issues. “Got a lot of players, got people out, they still got guys that go out there and hoop. But I just felt like they wanted it more than us, played harder, 50/50 balls and running offense and guarding us pretty well.”
The Suns defense got better in the second half, allowing fewer three point attempts (14) but were killed by the Heat’s shot making on cuts and drives against the Suns hard closeouts. Once the Heat had their lead, they kept it with hustle and the Suns just could not recover.
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had no easy answer why they were able to run it up on the Suns.
“I don’t know. [The Suns] are a really good defense,” Spoelstra said. “They do what they do extremely well. They are well versed, very disciplined and they have a lot of guys that know how to make it very tough on you. We just happened to make some shots and sometimes you can become ignitable from there and really sharing the ball and making the extra ball, but it also helps when the ball is going in. If the ball isn’t going in, in some key moments, it could look differently, but thankfully we were able to knock some down particularly when there was a run or swing of momentum and it seemed we moved the ball and got an open shot and we were able to knock those down.”
Just as Booker said after the Celtics loss, he promised that the Suns would respond after this one.
“We’re all going to be better next game,” Booker said. “We all have to lock in. It was a collective team loss tonight.”
After a no-loss-November (16-0) amid an 18-game winning streak, the Suns have gone ‘just’ 12-6 since then. In that time, they’ve lost Ayton for 8 of the games, including Crowder for 6, McGee for 5 and Landry Shamet for 4.
The Suns offense has struggled a bit since December 1 (15th in efficiency) while the defense has held firm enough (2nd) to keep the Suns winning most of the time.
Since December 1, the Suns have ‘only’ the 5th best record in the NBA (12-6), behind the Chicago Bulls (12-2), Memphis Grizzlies (16-4), Utah Jazz (14-5) and their next opponent, the Toronto Raptors (10-4).
The Miami Heat, last night’s opponent, are now 12-7 since December 1.
The Suns now have most of their team back together and have a chance in January to find their rhythm again. While players have gone through COVID, the Suns have found a trio of strong new contributors in Jalen Smith, Bismack Biyombo and potentially Justin Jackson (10-day signee, ineligible for a two-way). Smith came off the bench on Saturday, spotting time at forward and center, and Jackson made the most of his 4th-quarter time with 5 points and 2 rebounds in 9 minutes.
Soon Shamet and even Abdel Nader, who was spotted taking shots on the floor during warmup time for the first time in weeks, will get healthy too.
That would leave only backup bigs Frank Kaminsky and Dario Saric on the shelf. Both are out for most of the rest of the regular season with knee issues.
Ray of Sunshine
Chris Paul and Devin Booker might be going through a shooting funk right now — shooting only 30% the last two games — and two other starters are trying to get their wind back, but Cameron Johnson continues to cruise along.
Johnson extended his career-long streak scoring 10+ points to career-long 19 games. He’s also got 22 consecutive games with at least two three-point field goals, which is the longest streak in the NBA this season and a franchise record.
After averaging 8.5 points on 40.5 FG% (38.7 3FG%) and 1.8 three-point field goals through the first 20 games of the season, Johnson is averaging 15.6 points on 49.8 FG% (47.4 3FG%) and 3.3 three-pointers over the last 19.
He’s on fire, and hopefully will be invited to this year’s Three Point Shootout at All-Star Weekend.
The Suns now embark on a 5-game road trip to Toronto, Indiana, Detroit, San Antonio and Dallas.