Over the past 10 days, the Phoenix Suns have subjected themselves to four straight losses and five in six games. You can blame injuries or just state ‘it happens’, but the fact is they ran an exemplary 15-6 record down to 16-11 mostly due to a completely forgetting how to play defense.
The Suns have not experienced 5 losses in a 10-day span since before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world (that team also had Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton, Cameron Johnson and Dario Saric). Led by Ricky Rubio at point, they suffered losing streaks of 8, 4 and 4 on their way to a 26-39 record when the NBA shut shuttered for four months before resuming in the Bubble in Orlando. New coach Monty Williams spent the year preaching that his young team needed to suffer growing pains on their way to “the other side of hard”, and the 8-0 Bubble run was proof that hard work and dedication pay off.
Then Chris Paul arrived and over a span of 174 regular season games (full seasons in 2020-21 and 2021-22 plus 23 games this year before the streak) the Suns longest losing streak was three, which occurred early in his first season. That 3-game losing streak dropped the Suns to an 8-8 record. Since then, they won 122 of 159 regular season games (77%) over three calendar years, never losing more than 2 in a row, before this bad 5-game stretch.
So you can understand why Suns fans think the sky has fallen, players have regressed and the team is going to fade back to anonymity.
There are reasons to worry about the ceiling of these Suns, for sure. Chris Paul is now a former All-Star who’s on the back side of his career and relegated to Ricky Rubio levels of influence on a game. Injuries and absences are piling up, and no one wins a championship with a single All-Star like Devin Booker who relies on jump shots rather than bully ball. Heck, even bully-ballers need help to win the whole thing. Giannis, for example, needed fellow All-Stars Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday to eventually break through.
Even totally healthy and everything breaking right, the Suns ceiling is likely somewhere lower than the Larry O’Brien trophy given to NBA champs. That lumps the Suns in to a group of 6-8 teams with the same basic chances to win the whole thing.
But, this only December. Championships are not won in December, and as we know all too well a team’s regular season matchup record doesn’t count in a playoff series. Losing by a bunch this week to Boston, Dallas and New Orleans does not count as a handicap in April, May and June if the Suns meet any of them again in the playoffs.
“It don’t really count,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said of the 4th straight loss to Suns beat reporter extraordinaire Duane Rankin of azcentral.com. “And at the end of the day, my team and I, we’re working on our damn selves. We don’t have time for this extra shit. We’re working on ourselves for the postseason. That’s it. Everybody wants to make this a thing about regular season. So be it. Go ahead.”
"It don’t really count and at the end of the day, my team and I, we’re working on our damn selves. We don’t have time for this extra shit. We’re working on ourselves for the postseason. That’s it. Everybody wants to make this a thing about regular season. So be it. Go ahead."— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) December 12, 2022
All that matters is how the Suns are playing at the end of the season, and that they get into the playoffs with momentum and health. They need Cameron Johnson, something that looks like a Jae Crowder and overall health top to bottom, none of which they’d had for most of the season so far. If those things are in place in April, the Suns can do some damage.
Speaking of ‘something that looks like a Jae Crowder’, if there’s one silver lining to the team struggling this season more than the last two years, it’s that GM James Jones will feel more incentive to make a real trade before the deadline in early February. Rest assure, he won’t be as worried about continuity if they’re losing more games than he likes and/or cannot overcome their shortcomings.
They also need to find their defense again. You can’t win in the playoffs on offense alone. In 2021, they made the Finals because they played some of the best defense in the playoffs (3rd out of 16 teams). In 2022, they got knocked out in the second round because their defense tanked (14th out of 16 teams).
And over this past 10 days (6 games, including the Houston Rockets loss at home), the Suns defense ranks 28th in the league in giving up 120 points per 100 possessions. If you narrow it down to just the last four, they’re dead last at 125.5 points per 100 possessions. For context, that’s 16 points more than their season average allowed, which had ranked 5th last Monday.
Offense isn’t the Suns problem. Defense is.
“It’s something we have to take personally,” head coach Monty Williams said of their lagging defense.
"The one thing we pride ourselves on is competing."— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) December 12, 2022
Monty Williams after OT loss to #Pelicans as #Suns grabbed 19 offensive rebounds.
However, Phoenix allowed a 40-point quarter for a second straight game vs. New Orleans.
"It's something we have to take personally." pic.twitter.com/ABomqGeZwL
The logistical issues are real — no practice time because of the tight game schedule, lots of travel in between games, new lineups due to injuries — but these guys have collectively been together a long time now and they know what good defense looks like. And these last four games aren’t it.
Devin Booker isn’t walking through that door on Tuesday — he’s OUT for Houston, questionable for the Clippers on Thursday due to hamstring tightness — so it’s up to a shadow Chris Paul, a surging Deandre Ayton and ever-steady Mikal Bridges to pick up the slack.
“We need to get a win,” head coach Monty Williams said simply.
The Suns have two more games on this road trip — Tuesday in Houston, then Thursday in LA to face the Clippers — before coming home for their third game against the Pelicans in 9 days to start a four-game home stand.
The Rockets beat the full-strength Bucks on Sunday night, and just beat the Suns a week ago, and so will be playing with a lot of confidence when the Suns take the floor on Tuesday.