The Phoenix Suns won their preseason opener Tuesday night, but they’re still a work in progress.
They committed 29 turnovers, had defensive lapses, shot just 30.4% from the field and had no answers for Karl-Anthony Towns when he wasn’t settling for 3s.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Suns point guard Ricky Rubio said. “… There’s a lot of things we have to improve, but we get to know each other better now in a game. We see things we can improve and we see things that are working already.”
At the same time, Phoenix defeated Minnesota, 111-106, without Kelly Oubre Jr. (right wrist), Mikal Bridges (knee) and Aron Baynes (nose).
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The Suns should be even better once those three key players return and that could happen as soon as Thursday at Sacramento for a preseason game against the Kings.
“We’ll find out tomorrow morning,” said Suns coach Monty Williams, who confirmed Bridges, Oubre and Baynes all practiced Wednesday.
“Those type of situations are always touchy. You got to wait until they go through a physical practice and then read their bodies and the medical staff the next day,” Williams said. “So we’ll find out more tomorrow night, actually.”
Phoenix got its usual double-double out of Deandre Ayton, who went for 18 points and 13 rebounds with six on the offensive end. But he also played a role in the Suns’ early turnover troubles when a Rubio feed bounced off his fingers and out of bounds.
Later in the first half, Rubio went up top to Ayton for a two-handed lob dunk. The next trip down, Rubio found Ayton in the lane for two more on a jumper.
“That lob was kind of high,” Ayton said. “That back-to-back scoring was neat. You can see the future in that. Kind of hard to stop when have like D-Book (Devin Booker) ready to score the ball and Dario (Saric) being denied on the other wing to shoot it. It’s a lot of pieces, a lot of firepower and I’m just locked in and ready to go.”
As important as Rubio’s relationship with Booker is in the backcourt, Ayton might benefit the most from having the new pass-first point guard.
“I think once we get more of a rapport on offense, he and Ricky are going to have some synergy on pick-and-roll,” Williams said.
Kings coach Luke Walton is trying to make up for lost time this week as his team prepares to play its preseason home opener against the Phoenix Suns on Thursday at Golden 1 Center.
Sacramento’s trip to India was a groundbreaking moment for the NBA and a valuable bonding experience for the Kings, but the extensive travel has given the team little practice time since training camp began 12 days ago. Walton isn’t worried about implementing his offense, but he knows the Kings have a long way to go defensively after allowing 130 points in back-to-back losses to the Indiana Pacers.
Walton offered a candid response to a question about his team’s defense against the Pacers when the Kings finally returned to practice Tuesday.
“Well, it didn’t look very good, did it?” Walton said. “That’s why we’re addressing it. It’s something that we, as a group, need to get much better at. No need to panic. We had 2½ days of prep work before we flew out there (to India) and Indiana’s a very good team. It’s just about continuing to put in work and getting reps at our coverages and then the want-to by the guys, and the guys want to become a good defensive team. It’ll happen. It just takes time.”
The Kings brought in reinforcements after finishing among the worst defensive teams in the league last season. They allowed 115.3 points a game and 51.2 points in the paint per game, ranking 26th in the NBA in both categories. Opponents attacked the paint at will, knowing the Kings offered little in the way of rim protection.
Sacramento addressed its needs by signing point guard Cory Joseph, forward Trevor Ariza, forward/center Richaun Holmes and center Dewayne Dedmon. Joseph, Ariza and Holmes are defensive-minded backups who bolster Sacramento’s depth.
Dedmon was brought in to unlock a new dimension in the team’s run-and-gun offense, but he represents an upgrade over former Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein at the defensive end as well. Dedmon ranked 51st among NBA centers in defensive field-goal percentage inside of 6 feet at 56.7 percent last season. Cauley-Stein was 89th at 66 percent. Holmes, who ranked 34th at 55 percent, will also improve the team’s rim protection after averaging 2.4 blocks per 36 minutes last season.
In time Walton believes his team will be better defensively, but it didn’t show against Indiana. The Pacers shot 51.6 percent and went to the free-throw line 33 times in a 132-131 overtime victory over the Kings on Friday. They shot 52.1 percent from the field and made 15 of 29 from 3-point range in a 130-106 victory on Saturday.
“We know we have to work on our defense,” Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox said. “Both of those games, we let them score way too many points, too many fouls, too many straight-line drives, layups, open 3s. It’s something we know we have to work on.”
Forward Marvin Bagley said the Kings are “doing a lot of good things” on defense, but they remain focused on “fixing the things we’re doing bad to make sure we have more good than bad.”
Fox and Bagley agreed that improved defense – not the team’s explosive offense – will be the key to the Kings’ success this season.
“We have the foundation of it and now it’s just getting better at everything, getting all the terminologies down, communicating,” Fox said. “I think that’s one of our main aspects. We need to be able to communicate. And then (it’s) just taking it personal on defense, being able to keep guys in front of you. I mean, that’s the name of the game. Obviously you can have all these concepts and all the team defense, but at the end of the day you have to have guys who can stand their ground.”
SACRAMENTO KINGS PRESEASON SCHEDULE
Oct. 4: Indiana Pacers 132, Kings 131 (OT)
Oct. 5: Indiana Pacers 130, Kings 106
Oct. 10 vs. Phoenix Suns, 7 p.m.
Oct. 14 at Utah Jazz, 6 p.m.
Oct. 16 vs. Melbourne United, 7 p.m.
The Suns, who finished last in the NBA last season in 3-point shooting, feel as if they’ve improved in that area with the addition of rookies Cameron Johnson and Ty Jerome and bigs Frank Kaminsky III and Baynes to go along with Booker and Bridges, but that group went just 7-of-23 from distance on Tuesday.
Now, 13 Phoenix players saw action in the preseason opener. That’s a rare occurrence in the regular season, but four starters — Cameron Johnson, Booker, Rubio and Saric — shot a combined 4-of-11 from 3.
Ayton, who has been working on his 3, didn’t make an attempt.
Rubio, a career 31.1% shooter from 3, was 1-of-4 on open looks.
He can do many things, but Phoenix needs Rubio to find the range from deep to make defenses pay for crowding Booker.
“I’m confident that he’s going to have shots and he’s going to take shots and he’ll make them once he gets into NBA shape, playing an 82-game schedule,” Williams said. “It’s not something I’m concerned about,”
Kaminsky went 2-of-5 from 3s off the bench, hitting one more than the other seven reserves combined (1-of-7). As bad as that looks, the turnovers look worse.
Booker and Jerome, two primary ball handlers, each had five as did forward Cheick Diallo.
The turnover problem has Williams wondering how much of it was a product of the NBA making traveling a point of emphasis this season.
After all, the Timberwolves committed 27 turnovers themselves.
“If it was like 29 to 12, then I’d be pulling the hair out I don’t have, but it was 29-27,” Williams said. “The league has put this emphasis on traveling. I’m not sure how that’s going to affect the flow of the game. I felt like the game stopped a lot tonight because of those turnovers. They’ve got to figure that out.”
Timberwolves forward Robert Covington estimated Minnesota had “15 or so” traveling violations in the game.
“It was crazy,” he said.