PHOENIX — His voice raised and hands in the air, Suns coach Monty Williams shook his head after his team’s 102-97 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder Wednesday night, its third straight and sixth in its last eight games.
For the third consecutive contest, Phoenix squandered a late fourth-quarter lead, allowing Oklahoma City to go on an 11-2 run over the last 2:48 to win. The loss extended a disturbing pattern for the Suns, who to that point held a fourth-quarter advantage in each of their five games since Jan. 18 but only won one of them.
Citing an injury to star guard Devin Booker and a fluid rotation as factors to its recent struggles, Williams vehemently denied any external causes for his team’s most recent defeat. Put simply, he felt the loss was “on us.”
“Until this team understands consistency for four quarters, we’re going to feel like this a lot,” Williams said. “We can try to get everybody to feel sorry for us, it ain’t going to work. We got to be consistent.”
Prior to his team’s game against the Golden State Warriors Thursday, Williams said the Suns had a “really good film session” in which he openly challenged his players, something he said he has not done as much as he typically would after missing two practices this week due to personal reasons.
Tasked with defending arguably the best shooter in NBA history, Stephen Curry, and the Warriors Thursday, the Suns responded to their recent struggles and ended their three-game skid with a dominant 114-93 victory at Phoenix Suns Arena. It moved them ahead to seventh place in the Western Conference standings with a 9-8 record.
Holding a five-point lead at halftime against Golden State, Phoenix ballooned its advantage to 14 at the end of the third quarter despite Curry scoring 14 of his 27 points in the period. Golden State cut its deficit to 10 with 8:18 left in the game but would not draw any closer, as the Suns went on a 17-2 run over the next three minutes to put the contest out of reach.
“The one word that describes the response to last night is just resiliency,” Williams said. “That’s something that we’ve talked about. All good teams have that, the ability to bounce back, to live in the uncomfortable. That’s a tough loss (Wednesday) and to be able to come back to the gym and play the way we played, I can only describe it with that particular word.”
With Booker (left hamstring strain), forwards Dario Saric and Damian Jones (health and safety protocols) out against the Thunder, the Suns continued to search for a rhythm in their changing rotation against Golden State. Crowder stepped in for Booker in the starting lineup for the third straight game, forward Cameron Johnson started for the fifth straight contest and guard E’Twaun Moore in just his second game since Jan. 11 with point guard Cameron Payne not playing due to a foot injury.
Those moving pieces, Williams said, contributed in part to Phoenix’s inconsistencies and inability to solidify rotations for certain in-game scenarios. But another underlying factor was its lapses in communication between coaches and players on the floor, specifically with defensive coverages, which allowed Oklahoma City and others this season to get easy chances offensively.
“The transfer from the bench to the floor has been something that we’ve struggled with this year, making adjustments on the fly, especially on defense,” Williams said. “Going from blitzing a pick-and-roll to switching it, that’s where we’ve seen some mishaps, especially down the stretch. Those are things that could be a language barrier, could be lack of practice, who knows? But it’s not helping us.”
Defensively, the Suns dealt with multiple challenges while defending Curry, who is equally capable of making shots off the dribble and off ball screens. Many of the Warriors’ sets opened shots for him and his teammates, who rolled to the rim when Phoenix overplayed him on the perimeter, early in the third quarter, cutting the Suns’ advantage to 58-57 with 8:14 left in that period.
However, with Bridges as its primary defender on Curry, Phoenix honed in on using its length to trap Curry outside the perimeter, leading to broken offensive sets in which Golden State struggled to score. The Suns responded with a 14-2 run in that period and held a double-digit lead for the remainder of the game.
“Just mixing up coverages,” Bridges said. “Just try to tire him out as much as I can. All of us, me pick up full, try to just turn him a little bit and everybody else being there in shifts. They all helped me, especially in ball screens and when he’s running off other screens.”
Offensively, Phoenix had seven different players score in double figures Thursday night, led by forward Mikal Bridges with 20 points. It also assisted 34 of its 41 made shots, a promising sign after Williams felt it resorted to too many quick shot attempts against the Thunder.
The Suns had seven players record at least three assists each Thursday, led by center Frank Kaminsky with eight along with a near triple-double at 12 points and 13 rebounds. After signing with the Sacramento Kings this offseason and being reclaimed off waivers by Phoenix on Dec. 21, Kaminsky said he is now getting a feel for his teammates’ playstyles after missing some critical development time with them.
“It’s taken me a little bit, starting to figure it out more and more especially how to play with Chris (Paul) in that pick-and-roll,” Kaminsky said. “It’s just taken a little bit of time, so especially after last night and how frustrating it was, I just wanted to come out tonight and everything I’ve learned, everything I’ve taken from playing in these games so far, I just wanted to put it out there and just play as hard as I could.”
A listed 7-foot center who can shoot from the perimeter, Phoenix placed Kaminsky at the top of the key for several of its offensive sets, allowing him to step into his own attempts or find cutting teammates for easy baskets if defenders overplayed him. In total, the Suns had 40 points off the bench, led by Kaminsky and forward Abdel Nader with 16 points on 6-of-15 shooting.
“That group (the Suns’ bench) really solidified what we were trying to do,” Williams said. “I thought the starters came out with a great purpose in sharing the ball and then the second group came in and the body movement was taken to another level.”
To solidify its rotation, Phoenix is hoping to soon return Booker, who missed its last three games due to a left hamstring strain. Williams said before Thursday’s game he is “making progress” but has not moved around in a “dynamic fashion.”
Once he returns, the Suns will have another weapon for their ability to close out games. Regardless, their coach will be continuously wary of the effort they need to bring to win.
“That’s who we are, and I thought the balance was much better tonight between playing in that kind of environment and playing in pick-and-rolls and calling plays,” Williams said. “You couple with that with the defense off of a back-to-back. To hold a team under 100 points says a lot about the resiliency of our guys, but at the same time, we have to pack that in our suitcases and take it with us everywhere we go.”