It can be tempting to write off the Phoenix Suns dropping 6-of-7 as being because Devin Booker is out with a groin strain.
However, watch the games of the team that has fallen to eighth in the West and it’s clear the problem is bigger than that. In those seven games the Suns have a bottom 10 offense but, more concerning, a bottom three defense (which has led to a -9 net rating across those seven). This was a team that was 10-5 in November with a top-10 offense and defense, a team that had seemed to move past all the drama — the Deandre Ayton contract situation/relationship with Monty Williams, Jae Crowder demanding a trade, and the owner being suspended and selling the team — and was winning.
In the last few weeks, they have looked like a team that has let go of the rope. After the latest loss on Monday, getting their doors blown off by the Knicks, Ayton called out the team’s effort. Via Duane Rankin of the Arizona Republic.
“I don’t even know what’s going on. For me, I could tell you this — I’m not used to the no fight in us. I’m used to us being down a hundred and we still are going to pull out and win the game, or we still have that mentality like we’re about to win this game. Right now, we don’t have that, so that’s the only thing that’s going on throughout these games and why we’re losing. We just got to really lock In and fight. Right now, we can’t be thinking that somebody’s going to feel sorry for us or thinking somebody is going to save us — nobody is going to save us.”
Williams took some of the blame after the Knicks loss — where the Suns scored just 11 points in the first quarter — and said, “mentally and emotionally, I’ve got to get our guys stronger.”
When asked what’s leading to the struggles, Ayton talked about physicality.
“It’s really all in the physicality, man. I think teams are trying advantage of us, so just hit first. But we can embrace the hit and hit back. That’s what I’m used to, that’s the things we do. It’s the course throughout the game, we have to keep going for it. Not just the first quarter, or the first half — it’s throughout the first game… We are worried about a little too much. We’re worried either about the score, or us not making a shot. It’s intervening with our effort, so that’s about it man, we just got to stay stationary and lock in like how we used to lock in.”
Ayton has to be included in that consistency of effort and focus — he has had his clashes this season with Williams, apparently over defensive assignments. There are other things that keep this Suns team from being the 64-win team of a season ago: No Crowder meant that when starting four Cameron Johnson went out there was no high-level backup, Booker has missed time and he has become the focal point of the offense, and Chris Paul has not been the same player.
It’s a lot of adversity, but Ayton is right that these Suns have not risen to the challenge of it.
That adversity is not going away — Booker will be out until at least the end of this month. The Suns need to start finding a way to win or, like the Warriors, they could make their path through the West in the postseason a lot tougher than they expected.