Phoenix Suns comeback loses momentum late on with loss to Bucks


UPDATED: MARCH 14, 2023 AT 11:57 PM

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns’ margin of error isn’t much without Kevin Durant (sprained left ankle) and they’re not playing well enough to win through it right now.

There was a lot of good about Tuesday’s 116-104 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, especially their fight and energy that cheered up a rowdy crowd during a comeback that took more than two quarters to gain some traction.

But Phoenix’s (37-32) problem lately remains the execution, just not finding enough precision with what it wants to do in the pieces that have decided the last three losses.

Once the game was tied at 97 with 6:48 left, the Bucks’ three-minute 11-4 run to get them back in the driver’s seat wasn’t skillful shots or outstanding individual defensive plays. It just did more good.

In the Suns first defensive possession after a timeout, Devin Booker briefly lost focus and allowed Milwaukee’s Pat Connaughton to get an open corner 3. After a Deandre Ayton missed the jumper, Milwaukee (50-19) turned him over , but then Ayton was blocked at the rim after Booker doubled during a drive.

During the dead ball, the Suns received a delay of game technical foul. On the Bucks’ ensuing possession, Bucks center Brook Lopez hit a floater.

That was the 6-0 portion of the aforementioned 11-4 run. Even though there were over five minutes left after just one minute, that six-point Bucks lead felt huge, similar to some games in the 2021 Finals.

Part of that had to do with how Milwaukee planned against the Phoenix attack, both then and now.

This was never a team that generated a lot of rim pressure, but that is even harder to achieve as it is currently built without Durant.

Teams, of course, are going to play a certain amount on Torrey Craig and Josh Okogie, with the latter’s lack of defensive coverage becoming extreme on points. Both are capable shooters, but the defense is only too happy to let them dictate things.

From there, the defenses now often leave more space for the solar centers. Ayton is allowed to get the ball outside 10 feet, with his defender more often in a deep drop and offering the property for free. The opposition are fine with sacrificing a midrange jumper and know Ayton doesn’t want to use his dribble from there. That’s standard coverage for Lopez, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, so he was home on Tuesday.

“It’s harder because they give you the opportunity that DA got,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said about it. “That’s what they want. They are one of the best at taking away 3s, especially corner 3s. … That is their identity. … They don’t mind giving up that pocket money.

Ayton finished 8-for-19 for 16 points and was 3-for-10 in the second half. The two misses for him on those runs were both plays with Lopez giving Ayton that space. He should penalize that when he gets it, given how strong he usually is as a middle class.

On a baseline out of bounds play, Phoenix’s Jock Landale threw the ball five feet off the inbounder and drilled a 12-foot jumper. Lopez didn’t even pretend to be there.

The “four-point line” is a way of encouraging extreme distance, with someone like Okogie standing a few feet behind the line to try and even out the margins. That’s an example of how Phoenix tries to make it, but the attack just completely lacks rhythm.

That was the crux of a 16-point deficit in the first half, and so was the bizarre spin of the supporting cast and bench that failed to contribute over the past week after helping Phoenix win game after game through injury after injury. in the run-up to March. .

It was definitely taken for granted because any time a reserve has some nice plays these days it stands out. Those guys were able to get through mix-and-match lineup combinations with no problem, but the lack of continuity in that regard plus three new faces has seemingly caught up with them.

Sun’s reserves started the game 1-12. I should note Cam Payne’s 13 points, a much needed night for him to see the ball go into the basket a bit.

We went this far without talking about free throws, too long in many eyes.

Bucks star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo attempted 24 and made 14, compared to Phoenix’s 14-for-16 tally as an entire team.

The frustration, especially after how problematic it was in the Final loss, was there again on Tuesday.

“I can sit here and go through what you all already know,” Williams said. “You just have to put my name on the quote. You saw it. It’s just, it’s not fair. Boek has three free throws. … And Jrue Holiday is one of the most physical defenders in the game. He has three.

“Giannis has 24 free throws. It is ridiculous. There’s no other way to say it. Our boys are fighting. DA can’t play. If a man encounters you throughout the game. We’ve dealt with this so many times with this team. And honor to him. He saw what the game was called, he kept doing it, but that’s hard to swallow.

Chris Paul got a few questions about the discrepancy and the numbers for Antetokounmpo and Booker. At one point, he was done with that particular discussion and asked the media around his locker what the Suns should do.

“Your opinions are valid,” Paul said. “Write down what you all see.”

This is what I see.

Antetokounmpo has mastered playing downhill basketball as a scorer to the point where most of the time he gets a whistle when contact is made. And there better be contact, otherwise that man thinks that basketball. Sometimes he does anyway. And guess what, he gets soiled a lot. Booker certainly pointed out that he’s not trying to discredit every free throw.

Now there is such a thing as legal contact. If a defender slips off with his feet, hits the ball in possession to the spot and gets the ball straight to the chest without getting his hands in, all is well. We’ve seen top defenders like Holiday excel at this delicate dance.

But that’s where Antetokounmpo gets the shooting error more often than not.

“He has his place and [Antetokounmpo] just goes right through him and you call a blocking foul,” Booker said of one specific example involving Craig. “The next play-down that will make you hesitate. Like, I don’t know if you want to just go and get out of the way and let him dunk the ball, but there’s going to be some kind of contact. If he’s going to initiate it every time, it can’t be free throws every time.

To me, and this is subjective, there is some validity in rewarding a player who drives through contact and takes that penalty on their way to or near the basket. I also believe to some extent in the legitimacy of a ‘star flute’, a top level player who gets the benefit of the doubt for something they do all the time. An example is Booker’s ever-present struggle to get a shooting error every time he pulls that bump from an off-position defender 10 to 20 feet out and swings the ball to the rim as he takes it. It’s a clever, intoxicating game. Give him his free throws for it.

At the same time, as Booker says, there must be a balance. Like when Booker gets that call for himself or not. Right now, at least in these games against the Suns, there is none with Antetokounmpo.

And, most critically, players must can adapt to the whistle. Sometimes a game is called tight. Other times they let them play. Reasonable. That dynamic is part of basketball, and players will consistently talk to umpires, not just to complain, but to get feedback on what the umpire sees so they can adapt.

I asked Booker if those conversations were constructive for him and if he’s been able to adapt.


That’s a problem, and the biggest in all of this.

Booker’s own frustration reached a boiling point with two minutes left when he got a post-touch with Holiday draped over him, gave him a really hard bump to create space, a second and Holiday pulled a charge on the third.

Booker was really good at this game. For the second night in a row, he forced the team back during the third quarter. It ended with a bucket about former teammates Jae Crowder in isolation shocking the crowd, and of course he let Crowder know this.

Booker’s 30 points marked the sixth game of his last seven that he has reached that threshold. He played 43 minutes, far too many in the second game from back-to-back (and Williams said so too), but it’s only the third time in 13 games since his return from injury that he’s been north of 38 gone, so at least there is.

Antetokounmpo finished with 38 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in 35 minutes. Part of that tiebreaker took place with him on the bench. The Bucks, two starters in the back of this game (Khris Middleton and Grayson Allen), are pretty good.

Leave a Comment