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Suns look to prove themselves after early-season buzz cools down

With a 7-7 record, it's time for Phoenix to show which direction its headed

Michael C. Wright

Michael C. Wright

Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams challenged his squad Thursday night in the wake of a third consecutive loss, falling 124-121 to the New Orleans Pelicans.

“I told our guys, ‘Look, we had a nice run. We got hit in the mouth with injuries. Let’s see what we’re made of,’” he said.

Phoenix caught the basketball world by surprise early this season with a 5-2 start, which included wins over the LA Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers, but the Suns have since fallen on hard times. Having lost three consecutive games, in part due to injuries to point guard Ricky Rubio (back) and center Aron Baynes (hip) altering the club’s style of play, the early-season buzz generated by the team is gone.

But the truth is we haven’t seen the Suns at full strength since their season-opening 124-95 win over the Sacramento Kings, a game in which Deandre Ayton registered a double-double (18 points and 11 rebounds) along with four blocks in his only game this season. Ayton received a 25-game suspension by the league after that game for violating the NBA/NBPA anti-drug policy for testing positive for a diuretic.

Ayton won’t be eligible to return to action until Dec. 17, when Phoenix meets the LA Clippers at the Staples Center.

So, it’s tough to gauge at this point whether the Suns are indeed the real deal.

But Williams isn’t concerned. He prefers that the Suns fly under the radar.

“The buzz will die down a bit, and now we can just focus on getting better,” Williams told his team after Thursday’s loss. “This is the NBA. Our guys are more than able to do what they need to do to get better.”

The Suns aren’t sure when Rubio and Baynes will be set to return to action. Rubio has missed two of the team’s last three games, and when he tried to play Tuesday at Sacramento, the point guard could only will himself through 16 minutes in the first half, shooting 0-for-7 from the field.

Baynes has missed two games in a row with Phoenix mired in its first three-game skid of the season.

Two of Phoenix’s last three losses came by single-digit margins.

“This is kind of our first time hitting adversity, losing three in a row, and now we’re on the road for two tough games back to back, so we’re going to see how we’re going to go out there and play,” said Mikal Bridges, who contributed 12 points to go with six rebounds and three steals in the loss to New Orleans. “I think we’re mentally strong, and we’re together as a team. So, I think we’re going to push through and play hard the next few games, and try to leave out of there with a W. But it’s going to test our mentality to see what we’re going to be right now.”

The Suns have struggled defensively over the past two games, most notably at defending the 3-point line. Sacramento knocked down 41.9% from deep on Tuesday against the Suns, while the Pelicans on Thursday hit on 45.7% from range.

Baynes had been filling in during Ayton’s suspension, but Frank Kaminsky has replaced Baynes the last two games as he’s dealt with a strained right hip flexor.

Going into the loss to New Orleans, Kaminsky (hip) was listed on the injury report along with Dario Saric (knee) and Cam Johnson (knee).

Williams said “you hope” Rubio and Baynes return for the start of Phoenix’s upcoming back-to-back set on the road that starts Saturday in Minnesota and concludes Sunday at Denver. But the team has “got to start planning as if they’re not,” Williams said.

Those contests wrap up a stretch of five games in seven nights.

“It’s next man up mentality,” said guard Devin Booker, who has connected on 50% or better from the field in 11 of the team’s 14 games. “We’re dealing with a couple injuries right now, and for guys to come in who have just been on the practice court the whole season and get an opportunity to perform it’s a very big time. It’s professionalism at its finest. It says a lot about a person’s character.”

As for Ayton, who anxiously awaits his return for suspension, the center can only watch and wait.

Provisions of the suspension allow Ayton to practice and travel with the team, but he can’t be in an arena — home or away — two hours before game. During the down time, Ayton has been working to refine his shot; most notably his 3-point shot with Suns assistant Mark Bryant.

After this latest road trek, the Suns come back home to host Washington and Dallas before hitting the road for four consecutive outings over five nights to start the month of December.

So surely, there’s more adversity to come for the young, upstart Suns.

“We don’t quit. We compete,” Williams said. “That’s one of our values, our core values. We compete every possession. Sometimes, you can’t always dictate whether the ball goes in, but you can compete every night. I always tell the guys if you do the right thing it will come back to you. It may not come back to you in this game, but over the long haul, you’ll be better for it.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here , find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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