We have rarely seen the stars fail to align for the Phoenix Suns this season, but it was not their night on Wednesday.
Instead, it was for the Atlanta Hawks, who displayed high-level shot-making throughout a 135-103 victory over the Suns.
“They got off to a really good start and we fought like heck until I pulled the plug … Not anything real deep about tonight,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “We just played our butts off and played hard (but) we couldn’t make shots when they presented themselves. They did to start the game, and tip your hat to them.”
Phoenix gave up 42 points in the first quarter, and to be fair, 36 of its own. That brought on the Suns playing from behind all night, something they haven’t had to do almost all year. Suns guard Devin Booker said having a first-punch mentality to open the game is something they’ve talked about all year, knowing they are going to get the opponent’s best most nights.
That speaks to the Suns’ resiliency they’ve had this season, and they did hang around in this one, thanks mostly to Booker. He scored 30 points in the first three quarters to allow the Suns to be within nine entering the fourth quarter.
But it began with an 11-0 run by the Hawks to put them up 20. With the Suns on the second game of a back-to-back after winning in OT the night before, it was a difficult ask to expect them to storm back. Phoenix made that clear with two dud defensive possessions right after that extended the deficit to 25 with 8:02 remaining, where Williams called a timeout and pulled his key players.
Williams laughed as the circumstances of the back-to-back were mentioned.
“It’s not a recipe for a lot of energy, I can tell you that,” he said, noting he can’t remember having this many back-to-backs on a team’s opposite coast in a season.
Atlanta shot 63.1% from the field and 13-for-26 at three-point range. Everyone had it going for them too. No Hawks player registered over 20 points but they had seven players with at least 13 and 35 assists as a team.
In a turn of events, it was the Suns’ bench that was badly outplayed. Four of Atlanta’s five reserves scored in double figures, and at the time of that 25-point Hawks lead, the Suns were outscored 52-21 in bench points. The minutes with Chris Paul and the bench did not go well, either. Paul finished minus-26 and shot 3-of-11 from the field, an off-day he’s earned from time to time given his phenomenal play this season.
Cam Johnson, the top wing off the bench for the Suns, has found himself in quite the shooting slump. In his last 12 games, Johnson is now 15-of-76 (19.7%) from three-point range after going 0-for-6 on Wednesday.
Williams played Frank Kaminsky over Dario Saric as the backup 5, a telling move for where Saric is at right now. Saric was outstanding for large portions of the season, but his ineffectiveness in the past month-plus has reached the point where Kaminsky’s solid contributions were seen as more worthwhile at this time.
Mikal Bridges added 18 points for the Suns, making it a rare loss for Phoenix where Bridges was doing his part in the scoring column.
There was simplicity in the defeat. The Suns were tired and the Hawks made a ton of shots. That’s what Williams brought up when he was asked for his thoughts on the game.
But in a testament to the relentless nature of this year’s race in the Western Conference, the loss for the Suns happened to come on a night where the Utah Jazz handily took care of the San Antonio Spurs. Just like that, the Suns are back to being in the chase instead of the lead, a game back from the No. 1 seed.
Booker knows what time it is.
“We’re coming down that final stretch, but I think this is the most important stretch for us to be playing high-level basketball so you have to put the excuses aside,” he said.