By Trevor Booth
PHOENIX — A nine-year NBA veteran, Phoenix Suns forward Jae Crowder promised to hold himself and teammates accountable when he signed with the franchise in November. He certainly kept his word on Tuesday night, calling the Suns’ 128-124 loss to the Brooklyn Nets – in which they blew a 24-point first-half lead – “disgusting.”
“It’s not pretty,” Crowder said. “It’s a lot of upset guys because we let a game slip. No matter if it’s anybody else, this was a game we were supposed to have.”
Despite holding a 21-point halftime lead and an eight-point edge with 2:48 left, Phoenix couldn’t hold off Brooklyn, which was without stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving due to injury. The Nets went on a 12-0 run to close the game, capping off a 74-point second half against a Suns team that ranked sixth in defensive efficiency entering the contest.
The loss ended a six-game winning streak for Phoenix, which has had a Jekyll and Hyde personality with closing games this season. The Suns’ bad habits reared their ugly head against the Nets, preventing them from sweeping a seven-game homestand and dropping their record to 17-10.
“When it got tough, we didn’t step up to the challenge,” Crowder said.
After the loss, Suns coach Monty Williams pointed out issues that similarly hurt his team before its win streak: transition defense and a lack of urgency.
Phoenix allowed Brooklyn to score 1.67 points per possession in transition, according to Cleaning The Glass, and 1.82 points per possession off live ball rebounds. In the second half, the Nets fed off the Suns’ limited ball movement offensively and shot 25 of 40 (62.5 percent) from the field, including 12 of 22 from 3-point range.
Utilizing a smaller rotation, in which 6-foot-8 forward Jeff Green was its tallest player, Brooklyn often beat Phoenix’s transition defense down the floor and exploited its switches in the halfcourt. Four of the Nets’ seven 3-pointers in the fourth quarter came within eight seconds of it collecting a defensive rebound, including the go-ahead triple from guard James Harden with 31.4 seconds remaining.
JAMES HARDEN TAKES THE LEAD. pic.twitter.com/zqE0z3EcuS
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 17, 2021
“From a defensive standpoint, the ability to guard the people and keep guys from getting to the basket was not great tonight,” Williams said. “And I thought the first five, six minutes of the third quarter, our offense was in mud. The ball movement wasn’t there, the urgency just wasn’t there and we gave a team life.”
Entering Tuesday’s game, Brooklyn ranked last in the NBA in points allowed (121.6) since it acquired Harden on Jan. 13, according to TNT’s broadcast. Phoenix took advantage of its struggles in the first half, identifying miscues through its halfcourt actions and rotating the ball well off it.
Suns guard Devin Booker– whose girlfriend, Kendall Jenner, appeared on a viral social media post with Cronkite students at the game – had 18 of his 22 points in the first half, using off- and on-ball screens to generate his scoring opportunities. As a team, Phoenix assisted 18 of its made 29 shots and tested the Nets’ discipline against their “point-five offense,” in which a player must pass, shoot or dribble within half a second.
But after scoring a season-best 75 points in the first half, per TNT, Phoenix scored just 49 in the second, 17 of which came from point guard Chris Paul in the fourth quarter. Outside of him, the Suns shot just 12 of-31 (38.7 percent) from the field and did not have another player score in double figures during the final two periods.
Part of this was due to Brooklyn’s effective switches in the second half. The Nets disrupted Paul early in the third quarter with center Deandre Jordan on the perimeter, creating difficult angles for him to pass or create his own shot.
But beyond that, the Suns failed to identify advantages when they had them, a byproduct of Williams’ feelings that his team lacked urgency after it built a 24-point first-half lead.
“The way we came out in the third quarter was really poor,” Williams said. “And so we got to go out on the road and we cannot just step on to the floor and think teams are going to lay down when we have a lead. Our intensity has to be at a high level whenever we step on the floor.”
With Suns center Deandre Ayton often the tallest player on the floor, Phoenix often missed opportunities to get him the ball when Brooklyn switched a smaller player on him or overplayed the pick-and-roll. Outside of an alley-oop finish off from Booker, Ayton attempted just three shots in the second half.
— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) February 17, 2021
However, he did not always take advantage of the chances he received. At a listed 6-foot-11, Ayton gave up his height advantage by bringing the ball low after catches, allowing the Nets’ smaller defenders to contest him more easily and force turnovers.
“I didn’t think we did a good job of, there were times when we threw it inside and our bigs brought the ball down and allowed their smalls to get a hand on the ball,” Williams said. “And then we let them push us off the block a number of times tonight. We didn’t take advantage of it.”
With his team leading 124-116 with 2:48 left, Williams elected to keep Ayton on the floor while Brooklyn continuously attacked him offensively. The Nets switched him on to Harden and Green, creating multiple drives to the basket and 3-point opportunities when the Suns’ defense was forced to help.
Riding a six-game winning streak, Phoenix may have had a better chance at extending its streak if Ayton was replaced with a smaller defender or if it altered its coverage. At the same time, it is only 27 games into its scheduled 72-game season, looking to build confidence and continuity within its principles and personnel.
“We could go small and play small-ball, but that’s to their advantage with the guys they have that can attack the basket,” Williams said. “With James in the game, you hope your rim protection and rebounding can help when he misses the shot. Just didn’t miss a lot in the second half.”
The Suns were fully healthy on Tuesday for the third straight game and just the fourth time this season. After starting forward Frank Kaminsky for the previous six games, he did not play against the Nets while Crowder took his spot, a sign of Phoenix still fine-tuning its rotation.
The Suns were not able to sweep their homestand but have still won nine of their last 11 games and are trending positively, according to Williams and his players. Tuesday’s loss to Brooklyn revived some bad habits, but Phoenix is optimistic its recent play has shown it is closer to wiping them out.
“You have to be honest about what happened tonight, but you also can point out the fact that we had a really good homestand,” Williams said. “We didn’t close it out the way we wanted to but we’ve been playing really good basketball and hopefully, we can learn from that.”