The Phoenix Suns are still well ahead of where many expected, but could be even better if not for injuries, suspension and brutal growing pains. How this young team handles adversity will define what comes next.
The Phoenix Suns are better than their 11-15 record. They just might have a tough time proving it as they hit the most critical juncture of their early 2019-20 season.
To be fair, the 25 games they spent without Deandre Ayton also fit the bill of being the most crucial stretch of the Suns’ season. And to their credit, they went 10-15 over that stretch — a feat just good enough to keep them afloat in the crowded playoff picture in the Western Conference, but somehow disappointing in retrospect.
The reason? For as much as an 11-15 mark with Ayton missing all but one game would’ve been stunning for anyone to predict before the season began, there were a slew of winnable contests the Suns dropped that could come back to haunt them come April.
The last example came Monday night, when Phoenix led by as many as 16 points against a 10-16 Portland Trail Blazers team that struggled on defense and got a slow start from Damian Lillard thanks to early foul trouble.
Unfortunately, after a four-point play from Kelly Oubre Jr. briefly gave the Suns the lead in the final minute, Lillard responded with a clutch 3-point play over Aron Baynes to give Portland a one-point lead. Ricky Rubio‘s last-second 3-point attempt didn’t fall, dropping the Suns to a 111-110 defeat and a 4-11 mark over their last 15 games. Head coach Monty Williams referred to it as yet another lesson for his young group.
“I told our guys, if you’re going to play in high-level games, you gotta learn how to manage nights like this, because we’ve lost by two and now one point, and those emotions can stay with you if you don’t know how to manage it,” Williams said.
Williams is correct, and the lingering emotions are harder to ignore when a season-high 20 turnovers, the absence of Devin Booker (right forearm contusion) and two botched goaltending calls all contribute to another gut-wrenching loss for a shorthanded team. Those gut shots sting even worse when they’re compounded by simply being the same kinds of mistakes that have been costing Phoenix in all of its close contests lately.
In the Suns’ last game, a two-point overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs, they led by two and had the ball with 8.6 seconds left, but turned it over on the inbounds pass. DeMar DeRozan was then fouled as he scored on a driving layup. He missed the extra free throw, but the Suns couldn’t secure the board and San Antonio scored on a Patty Mills game-winner on the ensuing possession.
“I’m hopeful that the hurt we felt the other day translates into growth,” Williams said of the Spurs loss before Monday’s game. “I’ve always felt like in order to grow, it’s hard, but you won’t find success on a beach. You’re going to find it in pain and adversity and the weight room.”
If painful losses in tight contests are lessons, it won’t be long before the Phoenix Suns are among the most educated teams in the NBA.
After all, that bitter Spurs loss against another team in the middle of the playoff pack out West came just three days after their worst loss of the season against the Memphis Grizzlies. It was the first game Booker’s forearm injury noticeably plagued him, and try as they might to keep it close, the Suns simply couldn’t stop fouling down the stretch.
“It’s kind of painful, like it’s the third one [in a row],” Dario Saric said. “Of course it hurts, of course you need to think a little bit about it. We are not robots or machines to just forget easy like that, but we need it. Sometimes you need to be a robot to try to forget, make a quick turnaround for the next one tomorrow.”
Some critical late calls haven’t gone their way, but in almost every game lately, the Suns have turned in one dull quarter that winds up coming back to bite them thanks to an inability to close out narrow contests. That comes with the territory of being the league’s youngest team, but it won’t make their task of ending a nine-year playoff drought any easier.
“It’s a mistake game, there’s no question about it,” Williams said. “But we have to — as the youngest team in the league — we have to start to show some improvement in those areas.”
Despite this 4-11 skid, Booker’s latest injury and key players like Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio being dinged up at various points, there are still reasons for optimism. For a team that’s four games below .500, Phoenix’s plus-1.1 point differential provides a more helpful indicator of just how good this team really can be.
Baynes is finally back on the floor again, and though he’s been playing limited minutes off the bench, the Suns are about to get a huge boost with the return of their No. 1 overall pick, Deandre Ayton.
“It’ll help us,” Saric said. “DA is obviously a good defender down there, a shot-blocker. Of course it’ll be easier for me, for Frank [Kaminsky] and for other guys when they have somebody in the paint who can’t really block the shot, he can really help them.”
To this point, the Suns have been trying to get by at the center spot with some combination of starting Frank Kaminsky, playing Baynes off the bench when he can go, using Cheick Diallo for filler minutes and going small with Saric at the 5. Adding an athletic, rim-running big man with great touch and — allegedly — a thirst to make up for the boneheaded mistake that got him suspended should make Phoenix more competitive from his first night back.
That long-awaited return comes Tuesday as the Suns travel to face the LA Clippers on the second night of a back-to-back, but the scary and simultaneously encouraging truth is, no one player is going to salvage the situation in Phoenix right now.
“I’m hopeful that we don’t rely on anybody to be the savior,” Williams said. “Like I’m hopeful that our style of play stays the same and that [Ayton] fits right in and makes it even better, if that makes sense.”
In other words, the same offense that scored 110 points Monday night despite committing 20 turnovers and missing two of its best players in Booker and Ayton clearly has the system to succeed. Now it’s a matter of putting all the little things together as this young team learns to win crucial games that could have playoff ramifications down the road.
“Our discipline could be better, but it’s a test for us,” Baynes said. “I think we’re gonna meet it and come out stronger, that’s what I’m expecting for us. It’s still relatively early in the season and I think we can build from this. We’ve got one hell of a piece coming in for the next game, so he’s the biggest piece of the puzzle for us. It’s gonna be fun integrating him back into it and getting him going. I think that’s a good boost for getting us through this test and making us a better team.”
Before the season began, an 11-15 record despite missing Ayton for 25 games, Baynes for nine and Rubio for five would’ve felt like a miracle. That eye-opening 7-4 start that was ultimately doomed by injury woes quickly raised expectations. Now, after dropping so many winnable contests, Monty Williams’ thoughts on his team’s hot start nearly mirror those of the fanbase.
“I let my expectations change a little bit when we started winning early and I had to kind of recalibrate my head to go back to the process,” he said. “Even though those games hurt, I knew it was a part of the deal. When James [Jones] and I talked this summer, we knew we were gonna lose games like that. We also knew we were gonna win games like the Clippers and the game in Charlotte because of the team we had, and then there were gonna be some games in between that were just normal NBA games. So when they hurt like that, it’s just part of the emotion, but when I sit and watch the film and see the stuff that’s happening in the game, I’m just like ‘That’s just where we are.’ It’s a part of the natural process.”
Between injuries, suspension and the kinds of tough losses all young teams experience, Phoenix has tasted its fair share of adversity in the early going. It’s remarkable how much growth this franchise and its culture have seen in just one year’s time, but the growing pains are becoming clearer and clearer. With Booker agonizingly going down just as Ayton was ready to return, this ongoing stretch may very well define the Suns’ season — as either the lesson that made them stronger and battle-tested, or the reason their playoff drought wound up spanning a full decade.