When the Phoenix Suns beat the Utah Jazz in overtime earlier this month, Devin Booker and Chris Paul combined to score 64 points on 55 shot attempts.
The Suns can win some games that way, sure, but they aren’t built to. The Brooklyn Nets are, though, and boy did they show everyone why in their 128-119 victory over the Suns on Sunday.
Kyrie Irving had 34 points, six rebounds and 12 assists in 35 minutes while Kevin Durant dropped 33 points in 28 minutes off the bench. Durant was playing his first game after missing three due to a thigh issue, and he looked A-OK.
You could see Booker watch this develop and realizing he was going to need to bring it to match those guys, and he did. Booker produced 36 points in 37 minutes.
But while the Suns got great games out of Deandre Ayton and Torrey Craig, Booker did not have Paul bringing it like he did against Utah.
The Point God had a respectable 14 points, four rebounds and eight assists, and as said above, it’s not the Suns’ style to have Paul get in these scoring duels, either. Yes, that’s what a playoff game comes down to a lot of the time, which is what that Utah game turned into, but the Suns need to win off their team play instead of being forced to trade baskets with all-world talents.
Head coach Monty Williams agreed with a sentiment that this game can be a good example to the Suns of how small the margin for error can be against teams with multiple stars playing like stars.
The last few minutes of the first half were a glowing endorsement for 1) that and 2) how difficult of an out Brooklyn will be in the postseason.
With the Suns up 13 and 3:34 left in the second quarter, Irving and Durant combined for 10 points, which were all buckets where you’re not exactly sure what Phoenix (or any team) can do to stop them.
But what it can stop is a sequence when Booker’s pass goes off the hands of Ayton, and on the trip down, Booker’s great defense to cut off Irving at the baseline is nullified when Irving whizzes a pass over Mikal Bridges’ shoulder to Jeff Green for an open layup.
A mix of those two things brought us to only a two-point edge for the Suns at halftime, erasing so much hard work to control most of the half.
Williams said unprompted that he felt that three minutes was a bit of a momentum change.
“I thought that was a huge moment for us and then we came out in the third and gave up 38 points,” he said. “And so when you’re playing against two guys like that with that much talent, it’s hard to overcome the lack of scoring.
“And in that moment right before halftime where we couldn’t get enough stops and score, if we could have scored and got stops, we could have gone into halftime with a double-digit lead.”
Booker’s answer on that stretch had him bring up closing out quarters, something we haven’t talked about much with this group after it was such a big problem for them the season prior.
“Teams can make you pay for that,” Booker said.
From there, the Nets scored 38 points in the third quarter and suddenly went from leading by five at the close of the quarter to a 16-point cushion with 7:25 left. Williams thought it was below-average defense from the Suns in the third quarter and that it was “a bit of a deflator” for them.
The Suns’ shooting wasn’t there to trade off. While as a team they were a meh 12-of-34 (35.3%), some individual performances there really hurt ’em.
Bridges was 0-for-4 from 3, moving him to 8-of-26 (30.8%) on the road trip. Cam Johnson made one of his five attempts, putting him at 7-for-26 (26.9%) over these four games out east. Jae Crowder (4-for-15) and Dario Saric (0-of-8) both did not play due to injury on Sunday but also have not shot it well over this stretch. Jevon Carter was 1-for-7 against Brooklyn after his big 3-of-4 mark in Philadelphia.
Williams was willing to say it means the Suns are due more than anything, as the ebbs and flows of a regular season usually bring. But it’s also a big-time reminder of how much the Suns need those guys to knock down shots. Phoenix was getting great results from Ayton on switches early, but the Nets started sending more help in the second half, and Ayton made the right play on kickouts to shooters.
The Suns had one of their better games this season in feeding Ayton the ball when he had a mismatch, as Brooklyn will switch almost any action, almost with borderline laziness. Ayton’s elite touch was there, with 9-of-12 shooting and some tip-ins on his eight offensive rebounds. It required Ayton to work for post possession a whole lot more, and with the Nets targeting him early in the game on ball screens, that looked to wear him down a bit.
It also became more difficult as the game went on to get Ayton the ball. The chemistry between Ayton and the guys throwing entry passes continues to not be at a point it should be this late into the season.
“It’s just a tough game, a tough team to play against when you can’t generate the kind of offense you need in moments,” Williams said. “We scored 119 points but a lot of those points were long 2s, 2s in the paint that weren’t by the rim. We have to be able to generate 3s and take advantage of DA at the rim. I didn’t think we did that well enough tonight.”
Ayon ended up with 20 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Craig was a highlight with 20 points and 14 rebounds. He keeps matching his impact plays with legitimate production, flying around on the glass, defensively and on cuts to be more than just a 3-and-D energy guy.
The loss is the Suns’ second in a row, the first time that’s happened in three months. The defeat at the hands of the sched— I mean the Boston Celtics on Thursday was what it was, and with the way Durant and Irving had it going Sunday, this also was what it was.
But the NBA does not rest for things just being what they are.
The final buzzer sounding in Brooklyn put the Los Angeles Clippers equal with the Suns on the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference, with Phoenix’s win percentage the only difference. The Clippers are making a serious push for that two spot, all while the Los Angeles Lakers drift closer to the sixth seed as quickly as the Dallas Mavericks are rising to the fifth seed.
There hasn’t been a point in the season since the halfway mark where a Suns-Lakers first-round matchup seemed as plausible as it did entering this new week, a terribly unlucky fate for any top-four seed.
It could be the Suns’ if they aren’t able to rapidly bounce back, as they have done just about all season.