Midway through the 3rd quarter I text a few Suns fans and asked if maybe this team was only one trade away from being a playoff team, this season. Here they were, having led the Jazz for about 24 minutes at that points – a Western Conference playoff team – and the Suns were successfully doing so while missing Tyson Chandler, Brandon Knight, and Jared Dudley.
Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker were playing fantastic on offense; P.J. Tucker and Dragan Bender were more than making up for Tyson Chandler’s absence on defense and the boards; and the Suns were making Gordon Hayward look pedestrian making Rudy Gobert’s tremendous night less than backbreaking.
Unfortunately from that point forward, the Suns ended the game (-10) and lost at home to Utah in a heart-breaker, 106-101. Oops…
The sign of a good team – a playoff team – is that when a star player has an off night, someone else that you wouldn’t necessarily expect comes off the bench and pulls the team over the hump to victory.
Tonight that downer was Hayward, but the big night came from former Sun-Joe Johnson. JJ’s 10 points and 3 rebounds in the 4th quarter was enough to help pull the Jazz over the hump even though the Suns had otherwise shut Utah’s star small forward down. The Jazz in fact had two former Suns pick up the load as both former Suns Johnson and Boris Diaw combined for 27 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists.
Phoenix showed a ton of fight in this one, short-handed, and I sent that text for a very legitimate reason: For three quarters they were the better team on the court.
Following up on his back-to-back 39 points games in Mexico City, it has become apparent that Devin Booker is going to be taking a much more individual role in the Suns’ offense and will be demanding possession of the ball more often and in those situations where the Suns need points.
Early in the season when Booker scored 38 and 39 points in back-to-back games against the Pelicans and Lakers, he followed that scoring show with 23 at Portland. Tonight he scored 25 on
10-22 shooting, but looked very much like he was the center of attention on offense – a position he obviously is beginning to relish. Finishing up his statline Book only recorded one rebound and no assists, two statistics that he will undoubtedly improve upon as he grows in the league.
Eric Bledsoe was the star for the Suns tonight scoring 31 points, his 7th 30+ scoring effort on the season. His 9 assists and 9 rebounds teased Suns fans with his near triple-double, although that wasn’t the only notable feature of his game this evening:
What was most impressive was that both Booker and Bledsoe scored 20+ in the same game for the 8th time this season. The Suns are now 3-5 in those games, but there was still something very important about it occurring. The offense remained very balanced as the two star players dominated the game shooting-wise, and Bledsoe still kept his teammates involved – only one of Bledsoe’s nine assists were to Devin Booker, so it was not like the two were focused on one another either.
Of the nine players that got in the game tonight for Phoenix, each took at least 2 shot attempts. Eight players took at least 4, and five took at least 6 shots from the field. So while the offense was focused on Booker and Bledsoe (they were a combined 21-44 from the field and 11-11 from the free throw line) there was opportunities to go around – a point that I will add on to in a moment.
As mentioned, Gordon Hayward had an off night for Utah, scoring 17 points on 4-13 shooting and dishing out 5 assists. Veteran bench players Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw came off the bench to pick up the slack, but Rudy Gobert stole the show.
Gobert dominated down low scoring 18 points and grabbing 17 rebounds while blocking 4 shots. Tonight was his 29th double-double on the season, and third in three games against the Suns this season (the Jazz have won all three). He has double-doubles in 18 of his last 22 games, and has reached double figures in rebounding in 28 straight.
Thoughts from the Valley of the Suns
The Suns’ last four games have been a roller coaster.
Cleveland – Down 22 in the first half, come back with the opportunity to take the lead in the 4th quarter, lose by 4.
Dallas – Lose to the team who at the time was one game below the Suns in the Conference standings.
San Antonio – Hang tough as San Antonio come out strong in the first half, makes a great comeback and steals an improbably win late.
Utah – Holds the lead for 3/4 of the game, loses it late but easily could have gone the Suns’ way.
Granted the Suns are 1-3 in those four games, but an argument could be made that they had a legitimate shot at being 3-1.
However, there were two shining stars in each of those games – Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe.
In Bledsoe’s last ten games, he is averaging 21.7p/8.1a/5.3r. In his last six games, Devin Booker is averaging 30 points.
There has been a noticeable positive turn for the Suns recently both offensively and defensively, yet they are missing one thing – they need a low-post scorer to balance out their offense.
Kory, Robert, and I have each discussed the possibility of trading Brandon Knight for Philadelphia’s Jahlil Okafor. I do not know if he is the answer to all the Suns’ problems, but there is something very intriguing about a player who has the offensive game to score 20+ points every night from the post, something the Suns just do not have at all – and something that honestly would put them into the playoff hunt, immediately.
These past few games have made Suns fans take a hard look at their beloved team. The Suns look like they may be one solid low-post piece away from being a very tough team to beat.
How/when/who they might be able to obtain to fill that void is still questionable. But if Ryan McDonough has really put the right pieces into place, and Earl Watson is really starting to get those pieces to play well – we might only be one player away from being the team the Valley of the Suns cannot wait to see.