Welcome to the weekly news roundup of your Phoenix Suns.
Current Record: 39-35, 4th seed in the Western Conference
Offensive Rating: 114.4 (14th, ↑1)
Defensive Rating: 112.6 (6th, —)
Net Rating: +1.8 (9th, —)
“Fragile” is the word that best describes that state of affairs for Phoenix’s playoff seeding.
Week 23 leaves Phoenix where it began: fourth place in the Western Conference. They are a half-game up on the Los Angeles Clippers. One game up on the Golden State Warriors. Three games out of the playoff picture completely.
The journey to get there included losing two out of their three games and slipping down to the fifth seed for one night. Questions still exist as to the validity of the Suns championship hopes, and both strengths and weaknesses were on display during the week.
The first game, which occurred against the Lakers, reminded us of how vulnerable Phoenix can be in the free-throw battle. The team surrendered 46 free throws against Los Angeles, the most they’re allowed this season and the fifth-highest total of any team in the NBA. They equaled their year-high total of 31 personal fouls.
46 for L.A., 20 for Phoenix. It was enough to make Monty walk out of his presser.
"46 to 20. That's it. That's all I got to say."— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) March 23, 2023
Monty Williams dropped the mic and walked out as #Lakers went 36-of-46 from the line to #Suns 15-of-20 tonight.
Phoenix lost 122-111. pic.twitter.com/KKUvGMHwqN
This is where things enter the wonderful world of the ‘gray’.
It is a combination of factors that equates to the Suns not getting to the line. I covered most of this in last week’s edition of Center of the Sun. What I didn’t cover was officiating bias.
Some may think it exists, others may not, but when the opposition is reminding you that Scott Foster is the head official on the game, it would be ignorant to think that there wasn’t some bias.
That is how you know officiating bias exists.
When you combine a team in Phoenix that perpetually fouls with a team in Los Angeles that constantly attacks the interior — and sprinkle in some Scott Foster — things like this are going to happen. Is that right? No. But it is reality.
The lesson to be learned after the free throw fest in L.A. is to attack the rim, not go by it. Phoenix did adjust this for the remainder of the week. Prior to the game against the Lakers, the Suns were the third-worst attempting shots inside of 10 feet, taking 33.3 per game. Afterwards? They increased their attempts by 5.7 and have been the 15th best team in this category.
We know that you can’t control the officials, and despite Phoenix continually stating that they try to ignore when they aren’t getting the whistle, it still gets to them. Simply see Exhibit B: the loss against the Sacramento Kings.
Phoenix looked engaged in the first half, popping the ball around, moving in transition, and taking advantage of a Terrence Ross heater. Chris Paul had 11 assists in the first half alone.
In the second half, the whistle started to be a tad more critical. Both Devin Booker and Chris Paul were hit with technical fouls over complaining about calls and non-calls, and the Kings responded with a 22-3 run, never relinquishing the lead for the remainder of the game.
The officials are in the Suns’ heads. If you want to win it all, despite the apparent bias, you can’t let your emotions dictate your actions. Perhaps Booker and Paul thought, given how successful the team had been that evening, they could make a point. What they did was kill the momentum.
What you can take from this game, however, is something that could be a strength for this team moving forward: The introduction of The Outlet Boyz, T.J. Warren and Terrence Ross. You know, like T.J. Maxx and Ross Dress for Less?
Due to the lack of starting depth, they had to play probably longer than they should in the game, and the Kings targeted them on defense in the latter stages.
But offensively the two provided the fire power that we’ve been waiting for. The two did what no one else (outside of Devin Booker) has done in the absence of Kevin Durant: they stepped up. The two combined for 45 points (30 of that coming from The Human Torch) on 18-of-29 shooting.
It was a building block performance that carried over into their matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night.
The Suns bench showed up for the second consecutive night. It was a tight game throughout, and the key moments occurred when Joel Embiid sat at the beginning of the fourth quarter. It was make or break time for Phoenix. If they could extend their small lead while Embiid was on the bench, they stood a chance.
Embiid is playing at an MVP level, and if you want to talk about somebody who gets the whistle, insert his name next to that definition. He is second in the league with 11.9 per game (Giannis is numero uno with 12.3).
Joel left the game with 2:29 left in the third, Phoenix up 83-79. When he returned with 9:09 left in the fourth, Phoenix was up 100-85.
It is the bench that is ultimately going to determine whether or not Phoenix wins a championship. With performances from The Outlet Boyz this week, we have all gained more confidence in their ability to not only hold leads while the starters catch their breath, but to extend them.
Two games isn’t enough to call it a trend, but it’s a good start.
Player of the Week
The Outlet Boyz
28.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists
53.8 FG%, 44.8 3PT%
What I witnessed and the way the guys are coming together truly impressed me. Although it isn’t the NBA’s best defensive second team, the Western Conference doesn’t require it to be. As long as you can score points, as long as you can hold the line, you stand a chance.
TJ Warren averaged 12.3 points in 25.1 minutes this week. Terrence Ross averaged 16 points in 20.7 minutes. They’ve provided more scoring options for Phoenix, which takes the load off of Booker.
As the postseason approaches, Monty will surely cut down his rotations. What he shouldn’t do is keep T.J. Buckets and the Human Torch hidden on the bench. They both possess size, scoring ability, and experience. And yeah, I get it. No one on the Suns lacks experience. This is a veteran team with veteran players. Outside of Darius Bazley there’s no one you couldn’t put in there and be confident with the experience.
But the size and the ability to put the ball in the hoop is vital. The Outlet Boyz have it, one from the mid-range, the other from beyond the arc.
Highlights/Post Game Podcasts
SUNS at LAKERS | FULL GAME HIGHLIGHTS | March 22, 2023:
439. Suns (38-34) @ Lakers Post Game Pod:
SUNS at KINGS | FULL GAME HIGHLIGHTS | March 24, 2023:
440. Suns (38-35) @ Kings Post Game Pod:
76ERS at SUNS | FULL GAME HIGHLIGHTS | March 25, 2023:
441. Suns (39-35) vs. 76ers Post Game Pod:
News & Notes
The Score: KD: ‘All NBA players appreciate’ fans showing them love
Burn City Sports: Chris Paul Provides a Gift To Ex-Teammate Mikal Bridges
Arizona Sports: Suns crying foul hints at problems between their ears
Clutch Points: Suns coach Monty Williams slapped with $20,000 fine for scathing rant after tough Lakers loss
Total Pro Sports: Suns’ Devin Booker Accuses NBA Of Rigging Games To Get The Lakers Into The Playoffs
Fan Nation: Could Mavs Acquire Suns Star Deandre Ayton in Offseason Trade?
Burn City Sports: The Phoenix Suns Bench is Moving in the Right Direction
Arizona Sports: Phoenix Suns Charities awards $275,000 in grants to 19 Valley nonprofits
Quotes of the Week
“You want homecourt advantage. Honestly, if that’s not the case, I’m fine, too. I don’t think you want to be in the play-in.” — Devin Booker
“From this point on, it’s going to be more of a concise rotation.” — Monty Williams
“When I got hit in the face, I don’t know how that’s a foul on me.” — Devin Booker
“I like the fact that he got our back.” — Cameron Payne
“46 to 20. That’s it. That’s all I got to say.” — Monty Williams
“It felt good to be in a groove and a rhythm. Would’ve felt better if we got a win.” — Terrence Ross
“We’ve got to play better, but I think everything gets magnified with the officiating.” — Chris Paul
“We needed a win.” — Monty Williams
Points-per-game from the bench this week, second most in the NBA. T.J. Warren and Terrence Ross accounted for 54% of those points.
Injury Status Report
Deandre Ayton (thigh contusion) is PROBABLE
Kevin Durant (ankle) is OUT
This Week in Suns History
April 1, 1977
In 1977, the Suns were a team coming off of a surprising NBA Finals runs. The pixie dust had worn off and as the season was nearing the end, it was clear that Phoenix would not defend their Western Conference championship. They weren’t going to even make the playoffs.
They entered a game against the Detroit Pistons with a 30-46 record, the second worst in the conference. Detroit was 42-34, good for 5th in the West. Yes, the West. The Pistons did not make the move to the Eastern Conference until the 1978-79 season.
The game at The Madhouse wasn’t something overly memorable. It didn’t change the postseason standings or set any records for points scored.
What did occur, however, was a then-career high scoring effort from 4th year guard Paul Westphal.
Westy scored 40 points on 16-of-27 shooting. It would be his sixth highest total, his highest being 49 points also against the Pistons in 1980.
Phoenix won the game 133-116 as Westphal was aided by Alvan Adams’ eighth career triple-double and 23 points from Ricky Sobers.
Monday, March 27 — Phoenix Suns @ Utah Jazz
Wednesday, March 29 — Phoenix Suns vs. Minnesota Timberwolves
Friday, March 31 — Phoenix Suns vs. Denver Nuggets
Sunday, April 2 — Phoenix Suns @ Oklahoma City Thunder
Four games in Week 24, peeps. Four games. That’s half of the remaining schedule prior to the postseason.
It starts with a game against the Utah Jazz. It’s been quite some time since we’ve seen Utah – the Suns last played them in November – and they’ve changed their tone. When Phoenix played them last, the Suns were in first and the Jazz were in eighth. Now Utah is in 12th and have accepted their fate as a lottery team.
Kudos to them for their fight this season.
Executive Danny Ainge has to be excited at the prospect of what lies before them. They are a young team with more draft picks than Carter’s got pills. Anyone else remember that expression? My mom used to always say that…and I have no idea what it means.
Utah has lost three straight entering their game at Vivint Arena on Monday. The Suns could see the return of Deandre Ayton in this game as he is listed as probable.
After that, it is a game against the 38-37 Minnesota Timberwolves, who have returned both Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards. A team right in the middle of the play-in kerfuffle, the Wolves are in the process of re-integrating KAT. He hadn’t played since late November.
The Wolves were 10-11 when KAT went down, and went 26-26 without him. They had a hard time with their identity with both Towns and Rudy Gobert on the floor together. Which version of the walls will Phoenix see? The team that can score with the best of them in the NBA? Or a team that is lost in its own identity?
Phoenix should return Kevin Durant in this game.
Phoenix Suns' 13-time All-Star Kevin Durant (sprained ankle) is progressing toward a potential return to action on Wednesday vs. Minnesota Timberwolves, barring any setback, league sources tell @TheAthletic @Stadium.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 24, 2023
The Suns close out March with a game against the Denver Nuggets. It is the first of two meetings in the final weeks of the season against the number one seed in the Western Conference, and it could be a second round matchup if the standings were to remain intact.
Denver is a problem. They are the best team in the NBA in three-point shooting (38.9%), best in field goal percentage (50.9%), second in assists (29.2), allow the fewest rebounds (40.2), have the third best perimeter defense (34.5%), and have a two-time MVP anchoring it all.
The question becomes how much do the Nuggets want to reveal coupled with how comfortable they are that they will lock up the one seed. As of the authoring of this piece, they hold a 3.5 game lead over the Memphis Grizzlies for the top seed.
This could be a vanilla version of the Nuggets.
The final game of Week 24 pits the Suns against those pesky Oklahoma City Thunder. We need no reminder as to how effective Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is penetrating the paint, getting to the cylinder, and getting to the line. He’s elite. Whenever you have a player like that on your team, you always stand a chance.
Add to the fact that this team is, much like the Timberwolves, a team jockeying for play-in positioning. While Denver might not want to show all their cards, the Thunder will be playing 52 card pick-up.
The Suns have to stay afloat. The recent losing streak, surprisingly, didn’t cost them any place in the standings. But that’s a dangerous game to play. You don’t want to play chicken with your seeding, for if one team runs off four in a row, it could mean that you’re in the play-in game. That’s the last place you want to be.
With the pending return of the KD and DA this week, the Suns will go .500 this week. 2-2. It feels like one of those weeks in which a game you should win you will lose, and a game in which you will lose you will win. Kind of like Week 23, right? Should’ve beat the Lakers should’ve lost to the 76ers.
Basketball finds a way.
What will the Suns record be in Week 24?
This poll is closed
Bringing it Home
In a perfect world we will soon have a better understanding of how Monty Williams wants to manage his rotations. We also know that it’s not a perfect world. I mentioned above my excitement for the effectiveness of T.J. Warren and Terrence Ross. They increase the options on your second team unit of guys who can score. Cameron Payne, the Outlet Boyz, Landry “line drive” Shamet and Damion Lee if you’re playing some small ball.
All of these are solid scoring options.
The question I have is does Josh Okogie stay with the starting five? When healthy, that fifth starter is someone who will benefit from wide-open catch and shoot three-point opportunities. The gravity that Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, Chris, Paul, and Deandre Ayton bring forces opposing defenses to make decisions. And generally those decisions involve sending help.
When that happens, they have to sag off of somebody. That somebody will be Josh Okogie, or whoever that fifth starter is.
With that in mind, here are some statistics that Stephen Pridgeon-Garner recently put out there (Sidenote: what an amazing addition to Bright Side of the Sun Stephen has been):
Phoenix Suns catch & shoot % on 3pa's post ASG:— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) March 22, 2023
Durant: 66.7% - 3.0
Booker: 59.3% - 2.5
Lee: 56.3% - 1.6
Paul: 47.6% - 1.9
Ross: 47.4% - 4.2
Payne: 33.3% - 1.9
Craig: 33.3% - 3.3
Wainright: 32.4% - 3.1
Okogie: 31.4% - 4.6
They're 2nd post ASG, at 41.8% pic.twitter.com/ip1OZMGQjp
What this shows you is that there’s better options for the fifth starter.
What Okogie brings is more than just shooting, it’s defense. He’s somebody who plays bigger than he is. He hustles. He plays hard.
But why not add T.J. Warren to the first team unit? Why not add Terrence Ross? The goal of the starting unit is to jump on the opposition early and give yourself a big enough cushion to sustain second team minutes. Choosing a fifth player who has the ability to knock down those open opportunities, which will come, accomplishes just that.
You move JO to the second team unit, and both he and Torrey Craig act as your defensive anchors. Cameron Payne, Landry Shamet, Terrence Ross, or T.J. Warren – whoever isn’t starting – provides you with the offensive firepower with that unit.
Then, based on how the game is going, you integrate Josh in the latter stages of the game. He’s the one who comes in for Chris Paul, who could be compromised rather easily defensively in the final five minutes of the game. It’s not about who you start with, it’s about who you end with.
Okogie has had a fantastic season, there’s no denying that. He posted a career high in three-point percentage. At 32.7%. If he’s gonna get that many wide-open catch-and-shoot three- point opportunities, and not hit them, then you have to explore another option.
Whoever that fifth starter is could be the Quentin Richardson of this team. The knock down three-point guy. The microwave. The Human Torch, right?
My guess is that Monty Williams will continue with Okogie in the starting lineup for the next few games. He has to see it with his own eyes following KD’s return. If this trend continues, if Okogie can’t knock down wide-open shots with the first unit, hopefully Monty makes that change with four games left in the season.
I think he will be satisfied with the results.