PHOENIX – The game isn’t over yet in the semi-finals, three minutes left in the second quarter, but Kevin Durant looked defeated. He missed nine of 10 shots, trailing Phoenix with 26.
Sitting on the bench during a break, the Suns forward slammed a water bottle. He grabbed a towel, looked at the rafters at the center of the imprint, and wiped his face. Then the 13 Stars Star threw back his head and stared at the ground.
Chris Paul, one of two starters to miss Game 6 due to injury, spoke with Cameron Payne, his replacement. Reserve Torey Craig leaned forward and clapped half-heartedly. Coach Monte Williams reached out and pressed Durant’s leg, encouraging. An assistant coach patted Durant on the back from behind.
The Suns came out terrific Thursday night, an elimination failure that is beginning to become an organizational trademark. The 125-100 loss to top seed Denver in the Western Conference semifinals reversed last season’s Game 7 no-show matchup against Dallas. It was the kind of effort that will spark tough debates in the off-season, including whether or not a manager is right for the job.
“I take (it) personally, because I’m not getting our team ready to play in the biggest game of the year,” Williams said. “That’s something I’m proud of. That didn’t happen tonight. That’s something I really have to look at, whatever I’m doing to let us succeed these days.”
Phoenix played without Paul (groin) and big man DeAndre Ayton, who was ruled out earlier Thursday with a rib bruise. Williams started line-up Payne, Jock Landall and Landry Chamet, who combined for only 29 minutes in the first game. It was a tough place to start for the elimination match, and it only got worse from there. The Suns gave up 81 points in the first half. Like last season against Dallas, they trailed by 30 in the first half.
“It leaves a sour aftertaste,” Landell said.
After the acquisition of Durant at the trade deadline, the Suns became the favorite in the Western Conference. Even with 20 games left in the regular season, this made sense. A two-time Finals MVP, Durant was an outstanding shot maker and future Hall of Famer. Combined with Devin Booker, Paul, and Ayton, the Suns had firepower few teams could match.
In hindsight, Durant’s talent blinded everyone to his fatal postseason shortcomings. There was a bench, exhausted from deadline deals. There was teamwork, which 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, $133 million-max deal last summer. With Durant in place, Ayton’s offensive role diminished. He was still working with Paul, but his main duties — rebounding and defense — required strength and energy that he didn’t always give. Ayton has always faced more criticism than he deserves, but that’s been a story throughout the series.
Ayton watched Game 6 from the bench in streetwear. He was shot to the ribs in the first quarter of Game 5 on Tuesday. He played through it, finishing with 14 points and nine rebounds, but left the arena in pain. Williams said he found out on Thursday that Ayton would not be playing, but Landall said he had a good idea Wednesday that he would start in Ayton’s place.
“You don’t have (Ayton) as a caster, you can see the difference in the (Denver) pick-and-roll coverage,” said Williams. “They were stealing for shooters more, and they were actually in the lanes a little bit more. But I thought we missed a lot of shots early on, and I thought that dropped our spirit.”
At first, Phoenix’s only chance was to rely heavily on Durant and Booker. Going into Game 6, the two averaged 65.5 points in the playoffs. A blowout save for the Series was certainly possible, but it just wasn’t very realistic against a team as balanced as Denver. Booker, who was troubled by a foot problem he suffered in Game 5, finished 12-point-less than 12 in 36 minutes. Williams said he noticed that Booker didn’t have the same pop he had throughout the series, but that it’s “very hard for a guy to admit when he’s feeling something”.
Booker left the Suns locker room without speaking to news reporters.
Durant finished with 23 points on 8-of-19 shooting. 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 was often uncomfortable. After Denver took 17 more shots than the Suns in Game 1, Phoenix emphasized aggression and took faster shots. It was a good strategy, but it knocked Durant off the rhythm, and he never got it back.
After making 12 of 19 in Game 1, Durant was 51 of 120 (42.5 percent) the rest of the series. He made 5 of 24 from 3. He was brought in to Phoenix to be a difference maker, and instead Durant more often than not looked like he was trying to find his spot. When a reporter pointed out that he didn’t take a 3 in Game 6, Durant quickly replied that he’s not typically a 3-point shooter. “I felt like I screwed up a lot once I got here,” said Durant, adding that he prefers to be aggressive when going downhill.
“He wanted it so bad, and I wanted it so bad for him,” Williams said of Durant, who brought Phoenix his first championship. “I just feel bad for all of our guys.”
This could be a tough off season for Phoenix. While Durant and Booker provide a solid foundation, the Suns will have to decide what to do with the 38-year-old Paul, who is set to earn $30 million next season, only half of which is guaranteed. He must discover whether it makes sense to keep Ayton in a diminished role. And he must address a bench that has been a problem throughout the post-season.
First, however, the Suns will have to find a way to move past another postseason disappointment. Not just the loss, but the embarrassment in their home court with everything on the line. This may take some time. Williams said it starts with him.
“There are so many variables in a season like this, but they all feel like excuses,” he said. “I’m not interested in that. I’d look at myself first, before anyone else. You can point out all sorts of things, and I don’t want to list them. It’s not the right thing to do. I think you have to look at yourself, and that’s what I’m doing now.” “.
(Photo by Devin Booker and Monty Williams during the second quarter Thursday: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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