The Phoenix Suns are going to learn a few lessons in the second half of the season as they inch closer toward a likely playoff berth.
The takeaway from Saturday’s 122-111 loss to the Indiana Pacers will be how much tougher they make it on themselves when they don’t defend at a good level, and the difference turnovers can make in highly competitive games against good teams.
Phoenix gave up 97 points in the first three quarters. In that third quarter alone, it turned the ball over six times that resulted in nine Pacers points. On the night as a whole, the Suns had 16 turnovers that Indiana scored 19 points off of. The Pacers had 60 points in the paint.
“Guarding the ball was the thing that hurt us more than anything tonight … There were so many times where they just broke us down and got to the basket … They just seemed like they were a bit more urgent and desperate than we were from the jump,” Suns (25-12) head coach Monty Williams said. He also pointed out the Pacers (17-20) had that urgency even after playing in Los Angeles on Friday night against the Lakers.
Maybe on some nights, there’s a super Saiyan effort from All-Stars Devin Booker and/or Chris Paul to offset a below-average team outing. We saw Paul do that during his ludicrous two-week stretch in late January when Booker missed some time. But that was not in the cards either.
Booker has been such an offensive force that can score from any spot and make the right read as a passer 95 times out of 100 that it’s notable whenever a guy is able to really have a feel for defending him. He’s much quicker than he looks and plays strong, so there’s gotta be some athletic qualifiers there as well. Typically, it’s someone at least 6-foot-5 that has a built upper body, is very agile laterally and long. Houston’s Victor Oladipo and the Pacers’ Caris LeVert come to mind, and so too does Indiana’s Malcolm Brogdon.
The fifth-year guard was on Booker most of the night and made everything as difficult as possible for Booker. That’s all you can really do, and on top of that, the supporting defense behind him on Booker was sound.
Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren, who was on the Suns’ coaching staff from 2015-17, said before the game he knew Booker was special the second he met him, so it’s safe to say he’d build a gameplan with ultimate respect for Booker in mind.
That gameplan and Brogdon were effective. limiting Booker to 20 points on 20 shots with seven assists and six turnovers.
“If I’m gonna have the ball in my hands a lot and make plays for other people, I got to cut down on that,” Booker said of his turnovers.
Paul had a poor night as well, shooting 2-of-10 for eight points, four rebounds and 10 assists.
The Suns were down by five at halftime in a competitive opening two quarters. Neither team was playing that inspiring of defense. Dribble penetration was consistent on both ends, as there were a combined 114 points in the paint on the night. Indiana found that switch in the third, though, and kept hitting some key three-pointers that it felt like were burying the Suns deeper and deeper. Williams noted there were some Pacers buckets that could be “deflating.”
The Pacers were up 20 at the end of the third, and as usual, the Suns didn’t let the game die, but they didn’t have a full comeback in them. The deficit was down to nine with 3:58 to go before Indiana converted on two straight open shots near the basket, signaling that it just wasn’t going to be the Suns’ night.
Dario Saric finished with 17 points and five rebounds off the bench. For the third straight game that was competitive late, his strong play earned him the right to end the game at center over Deandre Ayton. Ayton had 14 points and 12 rebounds in 29 minutes. The third-year center had a good 2.5 quarters before being part of the bad during Indiana’s third-quarter onslaught that blew the game open.
After getting stuffed at the rim by the Pacers’ Myles Turner, Ayton did not return.
Williams brought up the stylistic differences Saric brings to the game as a stretch big. He went on to say that he believes Saric closing the game gave them the best chance to win and that he hopes it’s not a consistent thing.
Williams also felt that Saric was a better answer for Indiana All-Star Domantas Sabonis, who had a triple-double consisting of 22 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. Sabonis was one of three Pacers to score at least 20 points, joining Brogdon (25) and Doug McDermott (22).
The conversation around the Suns at the break was centered around maintaining what they had done in the first half while also noting how difficult a full regular season is at this level.
Saturday night was proof of that, as they had a so-so night at home and a decent team responded to that by smacking ’em in the mouth, even on the second game of a road back-to-back.
“I think they just played harder than us beginning to end, simple as that,” Booker said.
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