PHOENIX — The game didn’t end with 90 seconds left Friday night, but it felt like it. The Los Angeles Lakers missed once, twice, three times. And it did not matter. They kept grabbing offensive rebounds. First LeBron James. Then Cam Reddish. Then Anthony Davis.
Given a fourth opportunity, Reddish swished a 3 from the corner. Making a defining sequence worse: He was wide open. Down five, Phoenix Suns coach Frank Vogel called timeout. As his teammates walked to the bench, Kevin Durant stayed on the court a few seconds, hands on hips, staring at the floor.
The Suns lost 122-119 in their first In-Season Tournament game. They led most of the way in front of a sold-out crowd at Footprint Center. They dropped to 4-5.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: It’s November! The season is three weeks old! No one knows anything! Plus, the Suns are banged up! Bradley Beal has played in two games! Devin Booker hasn’t played in more than a week!
All true. Like just about every team, the Suns are still finding themselves. The “Big 3” of Durant, Beal and Booker have not played together once. They have 12 newcomers. And yet …
This team has some issues.
Nothing alarming. Nothing that cannot be fixed. But something to watch. Even without Booker, even with Beal working his way back from a back issue, the Suns are losing games they should win. All the preseason concerns — defense, a lack of a true point guard, chemistry, health — have proved to have a shred of substance at this early date.
“It’s a long season,” Vogel said. “Stay together. (It’s) disappointing. We’re banged up, got guys coming back, and we’re still going to get even more whole than we are.”
Friday’s loss marked Phoenix’s third fourth-quarter collapse of the season. On Oct. 26, the Suns were outscored 28-11 over the final 12 minutes in a loss to the Lakers in Los Angeles. On Oct. 31, they were outscored 33-19 in a home loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
On Friday night, the Suns were in control most of the way. Without Booker, they have learned to lean heavily on Durant, and the 13-time All-Star has delivered. He had 39 in the first match-up against the Lakers. He had 41 in a win Sunday over the Detroit Pistons. On Friday, Durant attacked at every opportunity. He drove left and finished over three defenders. He buried back-to-back 3s and scored nine points in 71 seconds at one point in the third quarter, finishing with 38. But he needed help.
In the first half, Beal provided it. His first basket in a Phoenix home game came on a thunderous two-handed dunk. He then hit a corner 3. And a runner in the lane. Beal scored 20 of his 24 points in the first half. He moved well. He elevated. Phoenix led 63-55 at halftime.
— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) November 11, 2023
“You saw today — they played him straight-up in coverage,” Suns guard Grayson Allen said of Beal, who twice in his career has posted season averages of more than 30 points. “If they don’t trap him, he’s going to score.”
The Phoenix momentum faded. Reddish hit a 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter to pull Los Angeles within 96-89. The Lakers then scored the first 11 points of the fourth, taking its first lead of the second half. Overall, they outscored Phoenix 33-23 over the final 12 minutes, making 12 of 20 from the field, including five 3s.
“They made four 3s to start the quarter … and they kind of controlled the game from there,” Durant said.
“We had to get to their shooters better than we were,” Vogel said. “They’re not a great shooting team, but they got guys who are capable. They showed it tonight. Trying to slow down LeBron without being sharp on your rotation to their shooters is a problem.”
The Suns miss Booker, who is out with a calf issue. (He could return soon.) Aside from his scoring talent, he’s their best playmaker. In Phoenix’s opening win at the Golden State Warriors, Booker was the difference, finding open teammates in the final minutes. That quality is difficult for this team to replace.
“(Booker) makes this thing go,” Durant said. “Without him, we can’t go where we want to go. He just puts so much pressure on defenses, and he guards (multiple positions). We miss him.”
Beal will play better, too. After a strong first half, he faded in the second, shooting 2 of 7. Overall, the Suns were outscored by 14 during the 31-plus minutes Beal was on the court. That won’t be a common occurrence. As Beal’s conditioning improves, so will the Suns.
“As frustrating as it is, I know it’s the smartest thing we have to do in terms of minutes and being smart with the ramp up, coming back,” Beal said.
The Suns are too talented to struggle for long stretches. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to learn. Durant, Booker and Beal all have missed time in recent seasons. This one likely will be no different. It may happen soon. It may happen later. The best the Suns can do is learn how to win without them.
So far, they haven’t.
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(Photo: Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images)