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Scintillating Suns Maintain Serious Standing Despite Inconsistencies

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If you’ve been watching the Phoenix Suns at all this last decade, you know the annual tradition. The season comes, excitement brews, the team fades, disappointment prevails, and we start all over.

This year, the feeling is different. This year it feels like there’s some substance to the Suns’ play so far.

It feels like this team is sticking around this time, and they’re not going anywhere. Sitting at 22-11, they are still among the top-four teams in the Western Conference. All while playing high-level basketball and having top-10 offensive and defensive ratings, the Suns are making their rounds through the league– everything but promising a chance at contention.

Amidst all the great play and as the numbers stack in the win column, however, one can’t watch any old Suns game and not see the inconsistencies that lie underneath these wins. Teammates getting underneath each other’s skin during timeouts, audible yelling from one player to another mid-play, and the constant teaching of each other’s play style during games is all noticeable, while also a little frustrating.

Nevertheless, after the hot start this team has had, who is necessarily to blame for all this frustration? Well, first, ourselves really. The Suns have been playing top-tier basketball all year and are proving themselves night in and night out, while still growing and gelling together. I’m not going to sit here and give a long spiel about how they need to change everything. They have given us very little to complain about so far throughout this one-of-a-kind season, and are actually doing a lot right.

However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some room for a little deep dive, eh?

Backup Point Guard Questions?

First and foremost, we must address the elephant in the room. This question is a little more serious and needs a little more thinking.

Or maybe, all we need is some time. Currently, the backup PG spot for the Suns is occupied by Cameron Payne, who, in the beginning of the season, was extending his bubble play into this year’s regular season. In his first five games, netting 19.2 minutes a game, Payne was averaging 9.8 points (52.6% FG, 50% 3PT) while also averaging 4.4 assists — turning the ball over only four times — with a +53 box +/- in that span. All sounds good for a sixth man, backing up a hall-of-fame point guard.

Right?

In the last seven games, however, things just haven’t been the same. Monty Williams seems to have removed him from the lineup altogether. He’s averaging only 13.7 minutes, while netting a DNP-CD Sunday night against the Timberwolves. Points are down to 6.1, assists to 3.0/game. Payne’s box-plus-minus has returned to earth at -1.7.

Now there are a couple of potential scenarios that could come into play down the stretch here for the Suns. One being Payne is able to break out of his recent slump. Who’s to say Monty doesn’t begin to unload Chris Paul‘s rest minutes onto Payne, upping his minutes again, thus forcing him out of his bad play recently. This would be the ideal case, as it would give the Suns the opportunity to fill any other need with that open roster spot they have.

Buyout/Trade Season

Another solution fans have been expressing is looking over the market.

Ricky Rubio or George Hill, maybe?

Rubio, already comfortable with the group at hand, would be an instant plug into this bench unit. He already was coming off the bench in Minnesota but has been starting as of recent, upping his points, as well as his field-goal percentages. Allowing a true PG, someone who can play make, but also confidently score and facilitate with Book and Paul out, will be very crucial down the stretch of the regular season. Because regardless, the goal is to win as many games as possible in this shortened season.

Hill may be a more reasonable option, though. The contract is cheaper while he wouldn’t necessarily need as big of a role or as many minutes as Rubio. Not that Rubio wouldn’t fit in great, Hill might just be smoother, as he has plenty of playoff experience to boast– something this team is drastically lacking. Adding a seasoned vet, who has been through some battles on their own, is something this team will need to have the intimidation in the playoffs.

First-Quarter Book

One of the hot commodities so far for this year’s team has been Devin Booker‘s ability to get going right away. Over the last six games, Booker is averaging 11.8 points on 7.8 FGA in the first quarter alone. It’s no secret that this has been, and will be, part of the Suns’ game plan going forward. If the opponent attaches a mismatch to start the game, it is Book’s task to attack, and attack hard.

We saw this during Monday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers. Damian Lillard was the original matchup but was caught guarding him multiple times in isolation. After eight quick points tallied around the seven-minute mark in the first, it was apparent a switch needed to be made. Gary Trent Jr. was then put in his place the rest of the game.

Now, this may seem like no issue. What’s wrong with scoring first, fast and often?

Not a lot.

But when it takes a toll on how you play in the second quarter — every time — you may not have to go as berserk as early. Getting hot and needing to stay in the game to keep it is not necessarily the type of player Booker is. All he needs is one to fall and he’s back into his groove in an instant.

Book is averaging 10.4 minutes in the first quarter over the last six-game stretch. This is causing him to come back into the game later in the second quarter, typically only getting him 5-7 minutes. After averaging only three field-goal attempts in this period, that’s not much time to get himself back into the swing of things before halftime.

The Fix

The tweak here is minor, and not even on him. This one is more for Coach Williams. Take Booker out a minute or two earlier in the first, regardless of how his play is looking, then give him that time back in the second quarter, to impact more before halftime comes. You can see Monty likes to use this time to start staggering Booker and CP3 as the game goes on.

This, however, seems unnecessary as he takes Paul out only a couple of minutes before Book.

Ayton’s consistency still an issue?

Feels like we’ve talked about this one before.

Oh, wait, because it is the main thing that divides Suns fans as of this year.

To trade or not to trade Ayton is the most extreme of takes on Ayton’s play as of recent. If you are a level-headed person, though, you will understand Ayton is still only 22, has room to learn, and is finally understanding what it takes night in, night out, for him to perform how he actually wants to and should be.

While his aggressions fades in and out constantly, many Suns fans think the lightbulb is burnt out, and there is no hope. On the contrary, it is up to this team to spark the flickering light within him, and let him shine as bright as a number one overall pick should.

Feed the Beast

The easy fix here is to simply run more through Ayton. Yes, this may not be what most Suns fans out there will want, but how else would you like him to get into his groove and recognize comfort spots? The big man needs more work. This is not a knock on him, game speed vs. practice speed is tough for a lot of young guys in the league. They just don’t give him enough of a chance to get his.

Sunday against the Timberwolves, we were able to see Ayton pull some tricks out the bag. He was able to match up exceedingly well against yet another premier big man in the game in Karl-Anthony Towns. Ayton was able to notch 22 points and 10 rebounds, while not only outscoring KAT, but making every bucket for his opposition an absolute grind. He also got those 22 points on 9-11 shooting.

Talk about being in your spots and watching the shot fall.

The midrange was looking sweet, nailing all three of his jump shots that were 13+ feet away. The aggression inside was there, drawing multiple and-one baskets, while putting down some huge momentum-swinging dunks. He is clearly able to make an impact. Although he also has clearly shown he can drop the ball — literally, on multiple occasions — the team needs to buy into the young star. Maximize his touches to sky-rocket his play.

The confidence must be instilled into himself at first, so force it into him.

Keep the momentum

With the first half of the season coming to an end within the next couple of games, the Suns must lock in for the second half. This schedule is no cake-walk, with multiple tough stretches implemented to test their success.

https://twitter.com/SunsLead/status/1364683058931138563

The most tell-all stretch to be looking forward to? That four-game, Eastern Conference road trip to four of the best teams in the East. Not to mention that is also followed by two games against a couple of power-houses in the West in the Jazz and Clippers.

Buckle up Suns fans. We’re in for an unfamiliar ride at this point in the season. Hope is still all alive and living very, very well. Typically, by this time, we’re planning our vacations and getting ready for another game of “who goes gonna be the first to go this deadline?”.

This year, this Suns team is real and making real noise.

Playoff contenders? No doubt. Finals contention? Absolutely.

Follow us on Twitter @SunsLead for the latest Suns news and insight. 

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About Cameron Prichard

Twitter: @TheValleyAthltc

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