It felt as if the low point for the Phoenix Suns this season occurred last Friday night where, while leading by two points entering the fourth quarter, the wheels fell off as the team surrendered 42 points to the New York Knicks and what turned out to be a blowout loss. The team shot 36.4% from the field in the fourth and 0% from beyond the arc. Jalen Brunson had a free rein at the basket and the Suns’ defense had front-row seats to the show.
Then Sunday happened.
The team squeaked out a four-point win over the Washington Wizards, a team that entered with a 4-20 record. Phoenix trailed the majority of the game by double digits. The Wizards had the 29th-worst defense in the league and the Suns managed to hang a total of just 112 points on them.
Devin Booker stated in the post-game press conference that the team needed to “get it together.” Luckily for them, their next opponent was the Portland Trail Blazers.
Devin Booker on the Suns trying to right the ship at home: "New York came in here and kicked our ass on our home court. And we were on our way to that after the first two quarters of tonight, so we gotta get it together." pic.twitter.com/zt8cp1AG8u— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) December 18, 2023
This surely was an opportunity to take the momentum from their fourth quarter against Washington and build up it, right?
The Blazers, who entered with the worst defense in the league and on a seven-game losing streak, beat Phoenix 109-104 on Tuesday night. It feels as if the Suns have hit a new low. It feels as if this team is broken and we don’t know what the fix is.
It has been a challenge for Phoenix as they’ve had to navigate health issues and availability while installing a new offensive scheme for 13 new players and a defensive scheme for all. The defense is complex in Frank Vogel’s system, and it is clear that the team simply isn’t getting it.
Following the discombobulation that occurred against the Wizards, Drew Eubanks stated “Coaches have heard some of what we’ve been saying. Simplifying things.”
On Tuesday night against the Blazers, it felt as if simplifying the defense had worked. The team appeared to be cohesive on the defensive side of the ball, switching appropriately, and hustling to disrupt Portland’s attack. They allowed just 20 points to the Trail Blazers in that period, holding them to 33.3% shooting.
As the game progressed, however, the defense began to fall apart once again. The Blazers found themselves wide-open time and again for three-pointers, attacking the cylinder at will, and out-hustling Phoenix on both ends of the floor.
It makes you wonder is it the scheme? Or is it an air of confidence that the team possesses that they simply shouldn’t?
In the third quarter, the Suns went up 15 points following a Nassir Little three-pointer. The swagger was back and appeared that Phoenix was cruising to a victory, seeing as they were up 64-49 with 10:40 left in the third. In the next defensive possession, however, the defense broke down as Jerami Grant hit a wide-open three.
Just look at this expert defense.
The floodgates began to open at that point. The Suns would be outscored 57-40 for the remainder of the game. Yes, a team that scored 36 points in the first scoring just 43 points in the second half.
It is as if the Suns believe that they are better than they are. When they get big leads, there is no way that they will dissipate. You have Kevin Durant and Devin Booker on your team, so how could they?
Quite simple. You lose focus. You stop playing with the intensity that got you the lead. You stop putting in the effort on the defensive end. This is the NBA and no one will ever roll over and simply go away. You must impose your will for 48 minutes rather than allowing the opposition to dictate pace.
Maybe it was an anomaly, allowing a team that had a 27th-best three-point shooting percentage to go off for 50% from beyond the arc. It happens, I get it. It’s the NBA. These one-off games occur. But it seems that they occur with regularity at the hands of the Phoenix Suns. Jalen Brunson, with a career-high 50 points. The Washington Wizards playing their best basketball of the season and the Blazers put together their best complete game in six weeks.
Anomaly or trend?
What is compounding issues? The offense appears to be broken as well. In the last two games against the two worst teams in the NBA relative to defense, the Suns are a -1 in the +/. The role-players that surround Durant and Booker aren’t doing their part, and they’re barely showing up. Non-Durant/Booker players are shooting 42.1% from the field and 21.2% from three-point range in the last two games.
In the past two games, the Suns have made a total of 12 three-pointers. Keegan Murray made that many three-pointers in the third quarter of the Kings and Jazz game a couple of nights ago! The Sun of matched that total in two games against the two worst defenses in the NBA!
In their first 22 games of the season, Phoenix was 4th in the league with 38.5% shooting from deep. In their five games since they are 27th at 30.9%. In the span of a week, they’ve dropped from fourth-best to thirteenth.
So that’s a problem.
The offense is relying on the mid-range jump shot a tad too much as well. Since December 1, the Suns have led the league with 9 attempts from 15-19 feet, but are 19th in the league with their 39.5% shooting from that area. Meanwhile they are 21st in the league in shots within 5 feet of the rim.
That they are not being the enforcers, rather, they are settling
The isolation attempts aren’t helping either. Take, for example, one possession in which Devin Booker dribbled the ball for numerous seconds. No movement on the backside, no cutters on the baseline, and no attempts by his teammates to provide a passing lane or an opportunity for a clean shot. The result of the play? An air ball as the shot clock expired.
This possession is a microcosm of why Phoenix is broken at this point.
You have two top 10 players in the NBA. Every night is turning into what we experienced in the playoffs last season. Kevin Durant and Devin Booker have to score 80 points combined for the Suns to feel like they have a chance to win a game. They have no defensive stopper. They have no elite shot blocker. They simply have two of the best scorers in the game. But that can only get you so far.
So how do you get out of it? How do you fix what is happening on offense and what is happening on defense to the Suns at this point? It’s why Kevin Young is the highest-paid assistant in the NBA. It’s his job to figure it out.
Suns this season:— Booker Muse (@DevinBookerMuse) December 20, 2023
— 5th in Turnovers
— 13th in Offensive Rating
— 17th in Defensive Rating
— 26th in Bench Points
— 10th seed
What needs to change? pic.twitter.com/LaEXtZMH8m
I don’t have an easy solution.
One advantage you have as you have Kevin Durant and you have Devin Booker. Their foundational cornerstones are elite. But you have to create opportunities and develop confidence in the other guys. The bench needs to be better. The defense needs to be better.
Simplify the offense? Simplify the defense? Hound the team with two-a-days until they understand that there are consequences to lack of action?
While Phoenix attempts to figure out how to fix what is broken, they also have another conundrum that lies before them: they have the hardest remaining schedule in their last 55 games of the season.
The Suns have the hardest remaining schedule, per Tankathon. pic.twitter.com/VS3IcJeQWp— The Bright Side (@BrightSideSun) December 20, 2023
They’ve yet to play the Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics, the Dallas Mavericks, and still have multiple games left against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the Denver Nuggets.
Time is a-tickin’ and Phoenix needs to mend what is broken.
Perhaps Tuesday night was the low point of the season, the moment that is a seminal point and will turn the tide for the 2023-24 season. But playing uninspired basketball is certain to create an uneasy locker room and it is a locker room that doesn’t have a lot of options to improve. They must look inward, and hard, to fix what is broken.
The Sun’s next opponent is the Sacramento Kings on Friday night in Sacramento. It should be interesting to see how they respond because if it mirrors how they responded on defense after going up 16, we’re screwed.
The Phoenix Suns are not a good basketball team.— The Bright Side (@BrightSideSun) December 20, 2023