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NBA: Playoffs-Los Angeles Clippers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

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So much went wrong on Sunday, leaving the Suns a lot to clean up

Life without point guards is not as easy as you’d think

The sky is not falling.

After losing their national TV game on Sunday to the Utah Jazz, the Phoenix Suns are 49-12 and still have a 6-game lead on the next best team in the league.

Playing without the injured Chris Paul (avulsion fracture in right thumb) will take some adjustment, with every player moving up a step on the ladder. Trying to adjust without your backup point guard, Cameron Payne, too? That makes it even harder.

The Suns have now lost 2 of 3 since starting to play without both Paul and Payne but luckily have lost no ground in their lead over the rest of the field because the second-place Warriors have lost 5 of 7 of their own. They are struggling to find consistency since losing Draymond Green (back, calf) with a 14-10 overall record since he has been out of the lineup.

What has gone wrong for the Suns so far?

Kind of everything. In the three post-All-Star games, they are only

  • 13th on offense at 115.6 points per 100 possessions (vs. pre-All-Star’s 113.5, ranked 3rd),
  • 19th on defense at 114.0 (vs. pre-All-Star 105.4, ranked 3rd)
  • 13th in net rating at +1.5 (vs. pre-All-Star 8.1, ranked 1st).

The Suns are scoring more per possession but so is everyone else. Their defense, like the D of most other teams, appears to have failed to return from the break.

An adjustment period was to be expected, though. They have lost their galvanizer — the guy who sets them straight on every play on both ends of the court. The surprise, I guess, is how much the defense has suffered.

The team as a whole looks discombobulated in their rotations. On Sunday, the Paul-less starting lineup was great on offense but terrible on defense against the league’s best offense in the Utah Jazz.

A few factors stood out in Sunday’s loss.

Short rest

Much like the start of the season way back in October, the Suns came out of the All-Star break with three games in four days, and their defense was the absolute worst in the last loss.

“Yeah, three out of four, basically three out of three and a half,” Williams said after the Sunday afternoon game. “That’s a tough scenario, especially without two of your top point guards.

You’d think they should be fine because they were rested after a week off but, again much like the start of the season, to go from nothing to three-in-four is tough ask.

Monty took the high road, noting the Suns were facing extra adversity without Paul and Payne.

“I’m proud of our guys, the way that we battled,” Williams said. “If we could’ve gone 2-1 in this scenario, it would have been a huge win for us.”

The Suns found themselves down by 10 points in the fourth quarter, but fought back to pull within three points on their final possession before Jae Crowder — who’d just made a huge three and grabbed an even huger defensive rebound to give the Suns a chance to tie — threw the ball away on an outlet to Book.

Lack of experience without Paul

To underscore the impact of losing Chris Paul AND Cameron Payne at the same time, check this out: the Suns new point-guard-less starting lineup had only played seven total minutes together all season as a five-man group.

“We’re learning how much we appreciate Chris (Paul) and Cam (Payne) and the guys that handle the ball a ton,” head coach Monty Williams said. “But all of this stuff is going to make us stronger.”

Devin Booker — averaging 28.3 points on 48.4 FG%, 8 assists, 5 rebounds and 3 steals since the ASB — is not interested in using the adversity word, though.

“I mean I wouldn’t even call it adversity, it’s just learning,” Book said. “These are big moments for us, and I think later in the season, when it comes playoff times, all these moments are going to help us.”

The Suns are playing with free money at the moment, holding a huge 6-game lead over the rest of the pack as they try to learn to win consistently without Chris Paul pulling all the strings.

The whole team knows one of the ways the Milwaukee Bucks beat them in last year’s Finals was to scheme Chris Paul out of the action, and to take advantage of all the non-Paul minutes.

“We’re learning a lot,” Booker said. “Close game situations, learning how to close the quarter, controlling the pace, controlling the ball without Chris (Paul) in the game, if teams ever try to take him out when he comes back. There’s a lot to learn and we’re going to do that.”

Bad defense, starters to reserves

The Suns starting offense, with Booker at the helm, is going along fine at least. But they are playing really bad defense as a unit.

“It’s just defensively, in totality, the whole entire game, not any specific portion of the game, we could really lock in and do better,” forward Cameron Johnson said.

In 62 minutes together over three games, the starting unit — Devin Booker, Cameron Johnson, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Deandre Ayton — is scorching on offense with a 134.1 rating but a sieve on defense with a 121.1 rating.

Before this three-game stretch, that five-man unit had only played 7 total minutes together across 7 different games (maths: only a few possessions at a time), so you can imagine their defensive rotations might take some time to gel.

They’ve been especially bad coming out of halftime.

“Two games in a row we’ve given up close to 40 points in the third quarter,” Williams noted. “That’s not been something we’ve become accustomed to here. The third quarter defense has to be a lot better.”

The Pelicans scored 42 points in the 3rd quarter on Friday night, then the Jazz scored 38 in the 3rd on Sunday. This from a team that’s been good on second half defense all season.

“I feel like we had an opportunity at the end to come back, but it’s more than that,” new starting wing Cameron Johnson said. “It’s everything else throughout the game that we could’ve just been a little better throughout, taking advantage of certain things, and not letting them get on runs. You know how it goes, it’s basketball. It’s a game of runs, there were a lot of them today, and just being better when they’re going on one and cutting that off, and getting back on one of our own.”

The new starting lineup needs time to gel, but everyone else had their problems too.

The Suns bench — Aaron Holiday, Torrey Craig, JaVale McGee and Landry Shamet — scored only 11 points on Sunday between them on 4-19 shooting. Only Landry Shamet recorded less than a -12 scoring differential while in the game.

Even mixing and matching pieces of the starting lineup with bench players didn’t work. The second most-used lineup on Sunday (Booker, Craig, Bridges, Holiday, McGee) was outscored by 12 points in their 5 minutes together. The starters outscored the Jazz by 7 in their 25 minutes, while every other lineup combination got collectively outscored by 11 in the other 23 minutes.

Wild stat...

The Suns are now 10-12 in games they have allowed 110 or more points compared to 39-0 when allowing fewer than 110 points.

Defense matters.

Other notes

  • Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside controlled the glass on Sunday, grabbing 22 rebounds (including 10 offensive) collectively. No Phoenix Sun had more than 7 rebounds in the game
  • The Jazz had 27 second-chance points (off 14 offensive rebounds) to Phoenix’s 14 second chance points (off 10 offensive rebounds). The Jazz’s 27 second-chance points are the most by a Suns opponent this season
  • The Jazz’s 17 three-pointers included a pair of banked-in threes from Donovan Mitchell capped by one of them in clutch time to help quell the Suns run. Mitchell tallied 7 points on long bank shots.

Add all this up, and you’d think the Suns were getting blown out but they had a chance to tie the game with five seconds left.

Next up

The Suns have two full days off now before their game on Wednesday at home against the torn-down Portland Trailblazers followed by the struggling New York Knickerbockers on Friday.

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