The Phoenix Suns are playing as if they could have used another few weeks of training camp, which is odd to say about a team that reached the NBA Finals last season.
Off to a lackluster 1-3 start, the Suns will seek more consistency when they host the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday.
Cleveland saw its three-game winning streak come to an end on Friday with a 113-101 road loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Cavaliers trailed by three entering the fourth quarter but were outscored 25-16 in the final 12 minutes.
Despite the defeat, there are reasons for optimism in Cleveland, beginning with rookie center Evan Mobley.
The 7-footer from the University of Southern California continued his impressive start with another strong outing against the Lakers. He finished with a career-high 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting to go along with six rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Mobley has emerged as a key part of Cleveland’s big starting lineup, which includes 7-footer Lauri Markkanen and 6-foot-11 Jarrett Allen.
“I think the big lineup has its unique weapons, and we’ve got to do a great job exploiting those weapons,” Cleveland coach J.B. Bickerstaff said.
The Cavaliers have also received encouraging performances from young guards Darius Garland and Collin Sexton.
Garland, who missed two of the team’s first three games due to a left ankle sprain, tallied 18 points and 11 assists against the Lakers and is averaging nine assists in four contests.
Cleveland continues its five-game road swing with a matchup against Phoenix, which is hoping to avoid a third straight loss.
The Suns turned in another puzzling performance against the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday, when they rallied from 13 points down in the fourth quarter only to lose 110-107 on Harrison Barnes’ 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“You saw us play desperate,” Phoenix forward Jae Crowder said. “We have to find a way to generate that for 48 minutes. We have to get back to being the hunter instead of being hunted. We are stepping up to the challenge but not for 48 minutes.”
Phoenix never trailed in the first half against the Kings but were outscored 29-15 in the third quarter. One major area of concern is the team’s 3-point defense.
The Suns have given up the highest 3-point shooting percentage in the league, 42.2 percent.
“That’s horrible,” Phoenix coach Monty Williams said. “We haven’t been that. It’s something we have to rectify, the details of it. Right now we’re overhelping a lot, losing our man behind us watching the ball, and that’s something we haven’t done (previously).”
Phoenix also needs a complete game from center Deandre Ayton, especially against Cleveland’s strong front line.
Ayton recorded his second career 20-20 game with 21 points (on 9-of-12 shooting) and 21 rebounds in the Wednesday loss, but he took just one shot in the second half.
Suns guard Devin Booker, who is celebrating his 25th birthday on Saturday, appears to be rounding into All-Star form after a rough season debut against Denver.
Booker was 12-for-28 from the field against the Kings and finished with 31 points, six rebounds and eight assists — all season-high totals. The seventh-year star has scored 9,481 career points, which is the sixth most in league history by a player before his 25th birthday.
Phoenix has won its last three matchups against Cleveland, which could be without reserve Isaac Okoro for the third straight game. The second-year guard has a left hamstring strain and is listed as day-to-day.