By Trevor Booth
PHOENIX – His voice cracking, eyes cast toward the floor, Suns forward Cameron Johnson gave out a deep sigh and shook his head as he tried to explain his team’s 120-112 double-overtime loss Saturday to the Denver Nuggets at Phoenix Suns Arena, the team’s second straight loss in extra time against the surging Nuggets.
“It’s frustrating, very frustrating,” Johnson said. “Frustrating to leave the game late, frustrating that it even came down to that.”
Johnson was one of five Suns who played a combined 60 or more minutes during their back-to-back games against the Nuggets Friday and Saturday. The Nuggets won the first in overtime and the second in double overtime when Phoenix could not close the games out after leading both late in regulation.
Johnson developed cramps because of the effort, forcing him off the floor late in Saturday night’s game and adding to his exasperation.
Even though coach Monty Williams said Phoenix “gave it everything we had,” the losses dropped the Suns to 8-7 and into seventh place in the Western Conference standings, and they extended a troubling pattern of late-game slip-ups.
Even following a six-point Phoenix victory over Houston last week, point guard Chris Paul voiced concern that Phoenix allowed the Rockets to take a game, which the Suns had led big, down to the wire.
And since starting the season 5-1, the Suns have lost six of their last nine games, including three of their last five in overtime in which they had a lead entering the fourth quarter. They are 1-3 since having a stretch of three straight games postponed due to “health and safety protocols” related to COVID-19.
The Suns hope to rectify their late-game woes when they finish their four-game homestand with back-to-back games against Oklahoma City Wednesday night and Golden State Thursday.
“We just got to finish these games in the long stretches, man,” Suns center Deandre Ayton told reporters Friday. “Especially with a new team like this, going into a big game and tough battle like that, it’s good for us. But it also shows us that we have to get better taking care of our possessions and taking the time with the ball.”
Phoenix held leads of 14 and eight points, respectively, in the two Denver games and led both in the final two minutes of regulation only to let the Nuggets escape.
Friday, the Suns had eight of their 16 turnovers in the fourth quarter, allowing the Nuggets to score 11 points off those takeaways. Denver also had 80 points in the paint in that game, a product of Phoenix’s turnovers in combination with an inability to keep the Nuggets and center Nikola Jokic from executing a halfcourt offense that produced opportunities in the lane.
Although the Suns rectified their turnover problems on Saturday with just nine in the game and three in the second half, their shooting went cold. The Suns made only 14-of-42 (33.3 percent) of their second-half shots and went 6-of-17 (35.3 percent) during the overtime periods.
Part of those shooting struggles were due to the absence of leading scorer Devin Booker, who did not play Saturday because of a left hamstring strain he suffered late in Friday’s contest.
The Suns were also hamstrung defensively in the second half when forward Mikal Bridges picked up his third and fourth fouls early in the third quarter, forcing Williams to alter his already-thin rotation.
Arguably a candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award and the club’s most versatile defender, Bridges also struggled offensively in the second game after totaling 24 points on 6-of-8 shooting from 3-point range Friday. He went scoreless Saturday before scoring 11 points in the final 4:02 of the fourth quarter and the overtimes.
“He’s learning that he can’t pick up those quick two (fouls), because then it changes the rotation for us,” Williams said. “And then a lot of times, the guy you want to keep him on is out of the game when you decide to bring him back in because you don’t want him sitting over there and getting cold. So when he fouls like that, it kind of throws off our rotation rhythm also.”
Without Booker, Williams said the Suns had to operate “by committee” offensively. Paul, who tied a franchise record with 14 first-half assists against the Nuggets Friday, took on more of a scoring role in the second game, pouring in 17 of his 21 points after halftime to go along with 13 assists and nine rebounds.
Bridges scored five consecutive points to give Phoenix a 92-91 lead with 3:21 left in regulation, forward Jae Crowder finished with 21 points – including a 3-pointer to send the game to overtime – and Johnson added 19 points in his fourth consecutive game as a starter Saturday.
— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) January 24, 2021
It wasn’t enough.
Even though the Suns got plenty of open shots, they hit just 40 percent for the game, including 30 percent on 53 attempts from 3-point range.
“I felt like I had a couple opportunities, a couple 3s (I) could have hit, should have that didn’t fall, that would have kind of sealed the game,” Johnson said.
Phoenix is still looking to solidify its rotation, especially for late-game scenarios. Injuries and COVID-19 have complicated the task.
Forward Abdel Nader played a combined 49 minutes Friday and Saturday and drew praise from Williams for his size and athleticism. Meanwhile, backup point guard Cameron Payne struggled from the field in those games, missing all six of his shots from the floor, totalling two points, three turnovers and three assists in the two losses.
Suns rookie forward Jalen Smith returned in Saturday’s game for the first time since Dec. 26 after he was sidelined by a left ankle sprain and a positive COVID-19 test. He recorded five points, two rebounds and a block in nine minutes played.
Forward Dario Saric and center Damian Jones have not played since January 11 because of “health and safety protocols” and both should provide a boost when they return. In their absence, Ayton has recorded four straight double-doubles but piled up 146 combined minutes in those games.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” Paul told reporters Friday of the team’s inability to close games. “Got to know what we want to run down the stretch. We got good shots, but we can’t turn the ball over, like I did that a few times. And then you got to know that you can get stops down the stretch.”
The Suns have shown they have the potential to qualify for their first playoff berth since the 2009-10 season when they advanced to the Western Conference Finals. As they get more players back and solidify their roles, they believe the pieces will soon fall into place.
“It’s just that we have to remember our principles and stick to how we play,” Ayton told reporters Friday.
Williams on game-tying 3-pointer
Leading 98-95 with 12.2 seconds left Saturday, Phoenix had a chance to close out a victory on its last defensive possession in regulation. However, Denver point guard Jamal Murray got loose for a step-back 3-pointer while matched up against Ayton, who had five fouls at the time, above the left elbow to tie the game at the buzzer.
— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) January 24, 2021
After the game, Williams said Murray traveled on the play, as he appeared to shuffle his feet after a shot fake.
“It looked like four (steps), it was at least three,” Williams said. “And so I’m not the only one that’s watching that, and this is the stuff that bothers me. If we’re going to go back and look to see if the shot was on time, then we also need to look at his feet.”
Williams also said that he would consult the NBA about calls that were made during the game, pointing out that Ayton fouled out in 38 minutes while matched against Jokic, who had just three fouls in 42 minutes played along with 29 points and 22 rebounds.
“The whistle that we get is something that – I got to talk to the league, because I don’t understand some of the calls,” Williams said. “It’s just getting old. I don’t feel like I should have to challenge (calls) to get it right, and that part really bothers me. Because you lose timeouts, and I thought for (Ayton) to play that physical and foul out and I look at Jokic, I think he had three fouls. Those are the ones that make you scratch your head sometimes. And in a physical game like this, it’s hard to accept.”
Smith returns to rotation
After missing time due to a left ankle sprain and a positive COVID-19 test, Smith provided a positive impact in his return to the rotation Saturday, hitting a corner 3-pointer in addition to blocking a shot and stretching the floor for his teammates offensively.
Jalen Smith, who has not played since Dec. 26 against Sacramento, hits a corner 3-pointer to end a 15-1 scoring run for Denver. #Suns closed the first quarter on a 10-2 run and lead 30-28. pic.twitter.com/g0V1ub51iZ
— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) January 24, 2021
Smith, who was selected with the No. 10 pick by Phoenix in the 2020 NBA Draft, was available for the team Friday but did not play. Williams told reporters during pregame availability that day that “he (Smith) certainly doesn’t have the cardio to play the kind of minutes that somebody would have to play in the rotation.” However, Smith got an opportunity Saturday and felt optimistic about his performance.
“I feel as though I was pretty much good on the offensive end, like moving around the top, finding open spots and then just creating open lanes for the team,” Smith said. “And I think I just need to work on just pretty much more physicality. I kind of played a little timid on the defensive end a bit, and that’s just something I got to work on as I move forward.”
Williams told reporters that “it is the worst time to be a rookie in this league” since Smith and others did not have the NBA Summer League or an extended preseason to prepare them for the regular season, and he has tried to make up for it by coaching him harder in practice.
“I’m actually a bit tougher on him because I know he can be a good player, and he didn’t get that time…” Williams said. “And for me it’s like, the talent that he has and the ability he has, we’re just trying to throw it all at him so he can get it. And I’m sure if he talked, it’s a bit overwhelming.”
Before Saturday’s game, Williams said he was told that Booker “could be day-to-day, depending on how he feels, or it could be another week,” to return from his hamstring injury.
“He’s a bit sore today,” Williams added. “So that’s something we’re going to be careful with, obviously. But he could feel better in a couple days. We just don’t know. The hamstrings are just different.”