The Phoenix Suns’ offense hadn’t quite clicked into place 2.5 games into the 2020-21 season. The longer it went on, the more apparent it was that it had been overlooked how much more natural the process was for last year’s team.
It hasn’t been for the Suns just yet, but they found a breakthrough of sorts in that half-game left over, the second half of a 116-100 win over the Sacramento Kings.
Sunday night’s second game of a back-to-back saw the Suns score 22 points in the last 5:23 of the third quarter in a game that, up to that point, had stayed level throughout. On Saturday night, the Suns (2-1) were making the right passes out of the Kings’ (2-1) pressure, but didn’t punish them enough by shooting 25% from three-point range.
The 48 points in under 18 minutes on Sunday was a good start to get things rolling offensively while they work out the kinks.
By introducing a presence and all-around threat like Chris Paul, it’s going to be a process. That requirement for something great like a top 10 offense to develop shouldn’t be a surprise. Mikal Bridges made sure to note after the game that this is only the team’s seventh game together, and that’s counting the preseason, which had limited participation in it as well.
But even while providing some benefit of the doubt that it’s three games into the season after a short camp, there’s still some funk in there. And to be clear, the Suns at one point in the first half had 17 assists and three turnovers. Those numbers didn’t translate to great offensive efficiency at that point, but there were some positives in there. The flow is just so obviously not where it needs to be.
Devin Booker is not one to turn the ball over an excessive amount. Keeping in mind the amount of defensive attention Booker received at a young age while carrying the offensive load on some very bad teams, he entered this season with just 18 games of logging more than five turnovers. Only seven times did he reach seven, something he did in each of the Suns’ first two games. He had four more Sunday after averaging 3.3 over his career.
“We still have to figure out some of our spacing,” he said after the game. “We had a short summer, short time to play with each other and today was already a step forward in those regards and we’re going to continue to do that.”
For the second straight night, Phoenix opened the game running sets to get Deandre Ayton post touches. The logic is there to get the big fella going early, something plenty of teams will do for their talented center. The problem has been too many empty possessions where either nothing happens or Ayton kicks it back out, resetting the play with half of the shot clock gone.
Standing and waiting for something to unfold is not what head coach Monty Williams’ 0.5 principles are about. Some of this, too, could be Paul calling on his own to get Ayton the ball more. That’s something he said after Saturday’s loss he needed to do more of.
Williams noted the Suns didn’t come out well to start the third quarter. That was after more uneven play in the first half, and you could argue watching that there was a mix of frustration and desperation in Phoenix’s play.
Then, with 5:32 to go in the third, the Suns were in the bonus. Williams didn’t think that strictly had to do with what changed, but that was at least the moment when things changed.
Booker hit two free throws, Cam Johnson nailed a 3, Frank Kaminsky got a layup and Booker followed with another.
Langston Galloway converted a four-point play and Johnson picked up three more points, this time off an and-1.
A Bridges layup, Kaminsky layup and Cam Payne free throws wrapped up those aforementioned 22 points, all off either threes, layups or free throws.
Eventually, the Kings fell apart offensively, allowing the Suns to lead by 12 through three quarters. As good teams do, Phoenix pounced on Sacramento in the fourth and didn’t let them back in it.
The offense still needs some time in the oven, which you could sense Booker saying afterward,
“I’d say we’re getting better. It’s a work in progress,” he said. “Film has been really [good] for us, communication has been [good] for us and we talked about trusting the system. I think we have a lot of new players out there trying to figure each other out but always with the right intention. So we’re getting better. Tonight was a step forward.”
You know what the best part of all this is? We didn’t bring up defense, the Suns’ backbone through three games. Williams saw his group’s physicality bounce back the night after he felt like the Suns got outworked. He started his postgame presser with a pen in one hand and a box score in the other, underlining key stats they improved on like rebounding and points in the paint.
It’s far too small of a sample size to make any declarations off, but we can at least say that the Suns through three games being tied for fourth in defensive rating (101.3) is a great sign their offense will have room to breathe and figure itself out. That’s the beauty in playing as hard as the Suns do.
GLUE GUYS GALORE
I am sorry for taking this long to get to Bridges’ play, along with Johnson and Payne.
The trio was terrific on Sunday and provided a cushion for those minor offensive woes to get ironed out a bit. Bridges had 22 points, Johnson scored 19 and Payne added seven points, five rebounds, six assists and two steals.
Bridges is at the top of the list when it comes to the Suns players from last year who we’ve seen a real change in with Paul’s arrival. He is letting it fly from deep with zero hesitation, attempting 20 three-pointers through the first three games. A fair amount of those looks are coming with decent contests on him from the defender.
And how about a little side-step action too?
He’s just as aggressive off the dribble, which Johnson is doing more of as well, as he showed on that and-1 drive.
“Playing in 0.5 and making those hiccup discussions,” Williams said of what he sees from his young wing duo. “It’s gotta be quick in our economy because I think that puts a lot of pressure on the defense. They have to make shots for people to honor the drive. And those two guys, for our program to continue to grow, they have to play that way.”
As Williams expanded on, Bridges and Johnson playing in what he referred to as “go-catch” opens up so much for Booker, Paul and Ayton. The offense becoming great comes down to the effectiveness of that Big 3, but it could truly become stellar if Bridges and Johnson have a joint breakout season.
Payne is giving everyone deja vu in being a revelation again after he was just that in the bubble. There’s a small chance the Suns would be 0-3 without the way he’s started the year. He has come out of the gates with fiery energy defensively, which in the third quarter saw him draw Kings star point guard De’Aaron Fox’s fourth and fifth fouls.
“If you can draw a charge on De’Aaron Fox, that’s really hard,” Williams said.
Beyond that, Payne’s downhill drives have succeeded more often than not on the other end and he’s been a great 0.5 ball-mover.
All six of his assists were in that second-half run.
If you make quick rotational passes like this in Williams’ system and work your tail off defensively, you’re gonna play.
Payne was a well-earned plus-26. While Kings rookie Tyrese Haliburton showed in both games why some — like this writer — believed he should have been the Suns’ pick at No. 10 overall, Payne playing like this eliminates a fair bit of second-guessing.