“We can see as a team that if we play the right way, and if we play hard. We need each other. We can compete with any team in this league.” – Phoenix Suns first-year head coach Igor Kokoskov.
Deandre Ayton took Igor Kokoskov’s thoughts about how the Suns played in Thursday night’s 116-109 loss to the Celtics a step further.
“I am proud,” said the Suns rookie 7-footer. “I’m not sad about this game or moping. I think we did pretty good. If we can play like that, we’ll beat a lot of teams in this league.”
Phoenix (2-9) will get its first chance to show it can keep playing at that level Saturday at New Orleans (5-6). The Suns conclude their road trip Monday at Oklahoma City (7-4), which has won seven in a row.
“Bringing energy and effort is a requirement in this league,” Suns reserve forward Richaun Holmes said. “If we play with that same effort as we did (Thursday night), we can put ourselves in position to win some games.”
The big talk from the players after Tuesday’s 22-point loss to Brooklyn was to hold each other accountable. Ayton felt they took a step in that direction Thursday.
“A lot of talking,” he said. “A lot of guys getting each other’s attention. From point guard to center, everybody was locked in.”
For example, during the second half Suns guard Devin Booker stood up from the bench and began yelling at players to get in their proper spots.
“Everybody was encouraging each other, but like in the most harshest way,” Ayton continued. “We’re all here for one job and that’s what we did today. Stuff happens. Out of all the Ls we took, I’d rather lose like this. I know we battled. So I can go to sleep at night.”
The Suns found positives, but still can’t shake squandering a 22-point lead in the second half. Kokoskov chalked up the loss to a case of fatigue and mental breakdowns.
“We just fell apart down the stretch,” Booker said. “I think we were up 16 or 18 with five minutes to go.”
Booker put the Suns up 92-76 with six minutes 13 seconds left as Celtics coach Brad Stevens called a timeout. Boston responded with a 24-8 run to close out the fourth quarter and tie the game.
“Kept giving up quick buckets, quick three-pointers. Miscommunications on defense to easy shots. A little bit of everything. If you blow a 16-point lead with five minutes to go, a lot is going on.”
The biggest mental breakdown came when the Suns left Marcus Morris open off a pick-and-pop with Kyrie Irving for a 3-pointer that tied the game at 100-100 with .03 seconds left to force overtime.
Kokoskov said after the game the Suns had the option to foul Irving and anyone who catches ball outside of the 3-point line. He admitted feeling uneasy about fouling Irving, who scored his 10 of his 12 fourth-quarter points after Phoenix led by 17 with seven minutes left, especially with the way refs were calling shooting fouls, but said it was on him for the team to know “the coverage” coming out of the timeout.
“You’ve got to trust your guys,” Kokoskov added. “The call was foul.”
Booker, Isaiah Canaan and Ayton all said they were supposed to switch.
“Had a lot of miscommunications defensively, but it happens,” Suns forward TJ Warren said. “We’ve just got to pick our head up and move on.”
Warren and Booker switched on Boston’s initial movement, but that put Booker on Morris. When Irving took the ball off on Morris’ handoff and dribbled left, Booker switched, but Canaan went with Warren and left Morris open for the straight-on 3.
“You get caught up in the game,” Canaan said. “Sometimes you get over aggressive thinking that the best player on the team is going to take the shot and he passed it. (Morris) made the shot.”
Ayton can understand how Canaan got caught up in keeping up with Irving.
“If you’re on the court in the moment, intensity is up, adrenaline is flowing,” said Ayton, who was guarding Jason Tatum on the inbound pass from the side.
“A simple mistake got us. Miscommunication. Everybody is human. I’m not going to be mad or nothing. It’s another experience to be locked in for moments like that.”
Ayton said the team was “shocked” after the Morris 3, but the game wasn’t over.
“Everybody was quiet but me,” Ayton said. “I was ready for the next five minutes. Everybody was shocked and quiet.”
NBA players often say one of the best things about the league is there’s always the next game.
The Suns have 71 more games to go, and they have an opportunity Saturday to show they can continue to play well — and come out with a win.
“If we can keep this up, we can win a lot of games,” Ayton said. “A lot.”
Suns at New Orleans Pelicans
When: 5 p.m.
Where: Smoothie King Center
Outlook: The Suns (2-9) went 1-4 on their five-game homestand after squandering a 22-point lead in Thursday’s loss against Boston. … New Orleans, after a 5-0 start, lost six straight before beating Chicago, 107-98, on Wednesday as Anthony Davis posted 32 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and four blocks. … Devin Booker scored a season-high 38 points against the Celtics while TJ Warren had a season-high 29 after failing to score in Tuesday’s loss to the Nets. … The Pelicans (5-6) are coached by Alvin Gentry, the last coach to lead Phoenix to the playoffs in 2010. The Suns have had five coaches since Gentry left in Lindsey Hunter, Jeff Hornacek, Earl Watson, Jay Triano and now Igor Kokoskov. Last month, the Suns lost, 117-100 at Oklahoma City and dropped its next game to San Antonio, 120-90, to begin the five-game homestand.