The Suns face tough off season questions after another dramatic elimination

The Suns face tough off-season questions after another dramatic elimination defeat – The Athletic

PHOENIX — The game wasn’t half over with three minutes left in the second quarter, but Kevin Durant appeared defeated. He had missed nine of 10 shots and Phoenix was 26 behind.

The Suns forward sat on the bench during a time-out and dropped a water bottle. He grabbed a towel, looked up at the rafters of the Footprint Center, and wiped his face. Then the 13-time All-Star lowered his head and stared at the floor.

Chris Paul, one of two starters who missed Game 6 through injury, spoke to Cameron Payne, his replacement. Reserve Torrey Craig leaned forward and clapped half-heartedly. Coach Monty Williams reached out and tapped Durant on the leg for encouragement. An assistant coach slapped Durant on the back from behind.

The Suns went out with a great bang Thursday night, an elimination flop that is now becoming a hallmark of the organization. The 125-100 loss to top seed Denver in the Western Conference Semifinals reflected a failure to appear in Game 7 of last season’s playoffs against Dallas. It was the kind of assignment that will spark heated debates this season, including possibly whether the head coach is right for the job.

“I take it personally because our team isn’t ready to play in the biggest game of the year,” Williams said. “I’m proud of that. It just didn’t happen tonight. I really have to pay attention to that, to everything I do, so that we can be successful these days.”

Phoenix played without Paul (groin injury) and big man Deandre Ayton, who was out Thursday with a bruised rib. Williams started Payne, Jock Landale and Landry Shamet, who had only played 29 minutes together in Game 1. Starting an elimination match was difficult and it got worse from there. The Suns gave up 81 points in the first half. Like last season against Dallas, they were 30 points behind at halftime.

“It leaves a sour taste,” Landale said.

After acquiring Durant at the close, the Suns became the Western Conference favorites. Even with 20 games left in the regular season, it made sense. A two-time Finals MVP, Durant was an elite shotmaker and a future Hall of Famer. Along with Devin Booker, Paul and Ayton, the Suns possessed a firepower few teams could match.

In hindsight, Durant’s talent blinded everyone to the fatal postseason failings. There was the bank, exhausted from deadline deals. There was teamwork, but it was hampered when Durant sprained his left ankle, limiting him to just eight regular-season games with his new team.

Then there was Ayton, the big man who signed a four-year deal last summer for a maximum of $133 million. With Durant, Ayton’s offensive role diminished. He was still working with Paul on the pick-and-roll, but his main tasks – rebounding and defending – required strength and energy that he couldn’t always muster. Ayton always took more criticism than he deserved, but that was a storyline throughout the series.

Ayton watched Game 6 from the bench in street clothes. He was hit in the ribs in the first quarter of Game 5 on Tuesday. He got through it and ended up with 14 points and nine rebounds, but he left the arena in pain. Williams said he found out Thursday Ayton wouldn’t be playing, but Landale said he had a good idea on Wednesday that he would start in Ayton’s place.

“If you didn’t have (Ayton) as a scooter, you could see the difference in (Denvers) pick-and-roll coverage,” Williams said. “They sneaked up more on the shooters and were actually in the fast lane a bit more often. But I thought we made a lot of misses at the beginning and I thought it hurt our spirits.”

With two starters, Phoenix only had one chance to rely heavily on Durant and Booker. By the start of game six, the two had averaged 65.5 points in the playoffs combined. A series-saving breakout was certainly possible, but not very realistic against a team as balanced as Denver. Booker, who suffered a foot problem in Game 5, finished the game with a postseason-low 12 points in 36 minutes. Williams said he noticed that Booker didn’t have the same pop as he had throughout the series, but “he’s just too tough a guy to admit when he’s feeling something.”

Booker left the Suns’ locker room without speaking to the news reporters.

Durant finished the race with 23 points on 8 of 19 shots. For the series, he averaged 29.5 points and 9.7 rebounds, shooting 45.3 percent from the field. It’s hard to say he didn’t play well, but he didn’t seem comfortable often. After Denver fired 17 more shots than the Suns in Game 1, Phoenix emphasized aggressiveness and faster shots. It was a good strategy, but it threw Durant off and he never got it back.

After scoring 12-of-19 in Game 1, Durant was on 51-of-120 (42.5 percent) the rest of the series. He made 5 of 24 from 3. Durant was brought to Phoenix to make the difference and instead too often it looked like he was trying to find his place. When a reporter pointed out that he hadn’t scored a 3 in Game 6, Durant was quick to reply that he’s not usually a 3-point volume shooter. “Coming here, I felt like I threw a lot,” Durant said, adding that he prefers to be aggressive downhill.

“He really wanted this, and I really wanted it for him,” Williams said of Durant, who gave Phoenix his first championship. “I’m just sorry for all of our boys.”

This could be a difficult offseason for Phoenix. While Durant and Booker provide a solid foundation, the Suns must decide what to do with 38-year-old Paul, who is expected to make $30 million next season, only half of which is guaranteed. It remains to be seen whether leaving Ayton in a reduced role makes sense. And it needs to address a bench that was a problem in the postseason.

First, however, the Suns must find a way to overcome another postseason disappointment. Not just losing, but embarrassing yourself on the home pitch because everything is at stake. This may take some time. Williams said it starts with him.

“There are so many variables in a season like this, but they all seem like excuses,” he said. “I just don’t like it. I would look at myself first before anyone else. All sorts of things can be referenced and I don’t want to list them all. It’s not the right thing. I think you have to look at yourself and that’s what I’m doing right now.”

(Photo of Devin Booker and Monty Williams during Thursday’s second quarter: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)