PHOENIX (AP)Devin Booker is playing some of the best basketball of his career and starting center Deandre Ayton is back in the lineup after missing a long stretch because of a suspension and an ankle injury.
But the Phoenix Suns are still struggling to win basketball games.
It’s been a frustrating month for a franchise that’s hungry to get back to the playoffs after a nine-year absence, which is the second-longest current drought in the NBA. The Suns have dropped 11 of their past 14 games and now have a 14-23 record, which ranks 13th out of 15 teams in the Western Conference.
”Coach always says that everything you want is on the other side of hard,” Booker said. ”I think we’re in the middle of that right now.”
The team’s toughest loss might have been the last one on Tuesday, when the Suns fell 114-103 to the Sacramento Kings. Phoenix had a 21-point lead late in the third quarter before coughing up the advantage and losing its second straight game at home.
”It feels bad when you lose games the way we’ve lost them,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. ”But as I’ve said before, I was under no inclination that this would be an easy task. I still feel that way. It’s just going to take time to get to the point where we’re playing consistently and feeling good about ourselves.”
The Suns were among the worst teams in the NBA last season, finishing with a 19-63 record, but a flurry of offseason moves had the franchise excited. They added veterans like Ricky Rubio, Aron Baynes and Dario Saric and re-signed Kelly Oubre Jr., who has played well since he was traded from Washington last year.
Then Phoenix started this season with a 7-4 record and optimism soared. But Booker said the main traits that led to the early success – especially a gritty, physical defense – have been missing. He added that there’s nothing the coaches can do to bring it back because it’s on the players.
”That extra 10% from everybody is what we need,” Booker said. ”I don’t think we’re talented enough to go in there, go down by 10 and then say we’re going to turn it on and win.”
Booker scored 34 points in the loss to the Kings, continuing his run of prolific scoring. The fifth-year guard is making a convincing case that he should be an All-Star for the first time in his career after scoring at least 30 points in seven straight games, which is a franchise record.
He’s averaging 26.2 points per game and shooting a career-high 51% from the field. But it’s clear he needs more help.
Ayton’s recent return from a 25-game suspension was supposed to provide that help and statistically the second-year player has been productive, averaging 15.4 points and 11.9 rebounds. But his return to the starting lineup has meant other players – like Baynes and Saric – have had their roles change and the adjustment hasn’t been easy.
The good news for the Suns is they’re still very much in the playoff race as the season nears the halfway mark. Just 2 1/2 game separate the six teams between the 8th and 13th spots in the Western Conference.
But the wins have to start coming soon.
”I still am pleased with the way we fight and battle and compete,” Williams said. ”We give ourselves a chance every night. We’ve just got to learn how to close the deal.”
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