Phoenix Suns: The key to building on the Spurs win
Coming off another rare, feel-good win, what must the Phoenix Suns do to actually build on this momentum moving forward?
The Phoenix Suns have been here twice before this season. Not just in the win column, but in a broader sense, coming off the kind of eye-opening, feel-good performance that great teams build on.
The Suns, however, are not a great team. They’re not even a good one. Their first two wins of the 2018-19 season were followed up with seven straight losses by an average deficit of 19.0 points, and then four consecutive defeats by an average margin of 15.5 points.
It’s only natural to wonder what kind of effort Phoenix will put forth following its third win of the season against the San Antonio Spurs Wednesday night, especially with the next opponent being an Oklahoma City Thunder team that’s already soundly beaten the Suns twice this season.
Against the Spurs, the Suns saw promising signs from pretty much everyone. Deandre Ayton was aggressive offensively and active defensively, finishing with 17 points, 10 rebounds and one soul-crushing dunk over Davis Bertans:
Devin Booker struggled with his shot (5-for-14), committed way too many turnovers (seven) and still doesn’t look like his healthiest self, but with the Spurs’ defensive game plan centered on stopping him, he was able to dole out a career-high 12 assists.
Isaiah Canaan poured in 19 points on 5-of-5 shooting from deep. T.J. Warren once again looked like Phoenix’s most potent scorer, dropping 27 points on 10-of-17 shooting. Josh Jackson played aggressive but composed, and though he was up-and-down defensively, he was letting the game come to him for the first time all season.
Jamal Crawford put up 10 points in a crucial third quarter stretch that helped the Suns keep San Antonio at bay when their 17-point halftime lead was cut to a one-possession game.
The list of positives goes on and on, much like it did in the Suns’ first win when they made 19 3-pointers as a team, Booker dropped 19 fourth quarter points, and Ayton, Jackson, Warren and Trevor Ariza all played terrific, or in their second win when Booker’s game-winner lifted them over a quality Memphis Grizzlies team.
Unfortunately, after both of those promising performances, the Suns responded with absolute duds in their next contests. Games entered garbage time in the second quarter. Veterans looked disinterested. Body language was terrible and the ugly final scores weren’t even indicative of how uncompetitive the Suns looked.
After the Grizzlies win, head coach Igor Kokoskov and the rest of the Suns iterated how important it was to finally break through and get a good win against a good team — the type of win a rebuild can, well, build upon.
That didn’t happen the last time. From there it was all downhill, with Kokoskov’s “can’t coach effort” mantra raising eyebrows — much like the late collapse against the Boston Celtics did, much like the discrepancy over whether the plan was to intentionally foul down the stretch of that game did, and much like all these double-digit losses have.
So how do the Suns, who already find themselves in the precarious position of needing to win games so youngsters like Booker, Jackson and Ayton don’t grow up totally jaded with this franchise, actually build on their best win of the season?
The answer might be as simple as starting a rookie.
Sure, Booker embracing his inner James Harden would help cover up some of the team’s deficiencies at point guard. Yeah, Canaan never missing from 3-point range would be neat. Jackson playing within himself, Warren capitalizing on all the defensive attention Booker draws and Ayton playing like the manchild he is would all be helpful too.
But none of those things is guaranteed to carry forward to the next game. At the end of the day, it might just come down to starting the team’s best wings, and right now, Mikal Bridges looks like he belongs in that group.
The two-time NCAA champion didn’t light up the box score Wednesday night, finishing with an unassuming eight points, two rebounds and one block in his first career start.
However, the difference in defensive focus was miles apart from what it’s been, especially at the beginning of the game when the Suns jumped out to 34-19 advantage in the first quarter. It was the kind of start Phoenix hasn’t enjoyed at all this year, and though not all of that can be attributed to the rook, the contrast in effort was striking.
“I think he brings stability,” Kokoskov said. “He’s a sound guy. That’s what we need. He’s going to make mistakes, we know that. He’s a young guy. He follows the game plan pretty solid. He played for a very good coach and very good team, so when it comes to the game plan execution, we trust Mikal a lot.”
Plus/minus numbers for an individual game can be misleading, but in this case, it was perfectly fitting that Bridges’ +23 was second to only T.J. Warren, the game’s leading scorer.
Trevor Ariza missed the Spurs game due to personal reasons (which Kokoskov assured everyone before the game was due to a family matter, and that there was no deeper story). Ryan Anderson played seven minutes. Tyson Chandler, who was bought out last week, rounds out the top three veteran influences who were supposed to guide these young Suns, yet here they were, beating the Spurs by 20 without any of them.
It’s not that Ariza, Anderson or Chandler had nothing to offer this team, or that the locker room knowledge being passed down was worthless. But for a team whose effort was being publicly questioned 10 games into the year, it’s time for Kokoskov to play the guys who actually give a damn, and for whatever reason, that hasn’t included the experienced vets who should be setting that example.
That means Richaun Holmes eating Chandler’s minutes at backup center. That means Josh Jackson getting some leeway on the nights where his passion for the game can be properly channeled. That means Ayton and Booker not giving up on plays defensively.
But most of all, it probably means starting Mikal Bridges at the 3 moving forward, especially if Ariza continues to play like he’s already got a February buyout date circled on his calendar. If Ariza misses the team’s next game, Bridges will have another chance to prove he belongs in the starting five.
This isn’t meant to hammer Ariza either; Bridges is just really good already. He can shoot the 3-ball, he’s smart, he knows when to attack the rim and he’s a committed on-ball defender. He needs work and consistency like any rookie, but the way he plays, the way he’s locked in defensively and the way he visibly cares when he makes a mistake, he could become the exact type of leader by example this young group needs.
Wednesday was only one quality win, and we’ve seen this 3-11 team slip back into horrendous habits after this same type of reassuring performance before. To be perfectly honest though, the Suns don’t need to set their sights on a playoff spot or some other unrealistic goal.
What they do need is to play the guys who give a damn and will scrap and compete — especially if those guys are the young ones that represent intrinsic pieces of the core moving forward.