Suns bracing for Walker, Hornets
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PHOENIX -- The NBA 40-point club had two members Friday: Donovan Mitchell and Kemba Walker.
The Phoenix Suns will be on intimate terms with both by the end of the weekend.
Utah's precocious rookie guard Mitchell had 40 points -- one short of his season/career high -- in a runaway 129-97 victory over the Suns in Phoenix on Friday.
Next up for the Suns?
Walker, who had 41 points and nine assists in Charlotte's 133-126 victory against Indiana that night, his third 40-point game of the season.
The Hornets (22-29) will open a four-game, six-day road trip in Phoenix on Sunday riding a two-game winning streak, and they are on a nice little 5-4 run since coach Steve Clifford returned after missing five weeks on medical leave.
For the Suns (18-35), the weekend backcourt matchups would be less daunting if top scorer Devin Booker was closer to full health. The Suns have lost six of seven and nine of 11.
Booker, who averages 24.3 points a game, suffered a rib injury when he took a nasty fall while contesting a Ryan Anderson shot in Houston last Sunday. While X-rays were negative, the injury still appears to be bothering him despite the face he missed one game to recover.
Booker extended his free-throw shooting streak to a franchise season-record 60 in a row with four more makes against Utah, but he has made only 12 of 38 field-goal attempts, 2 of 14 from 3-point range, in two games since returning.
The Suns' scoring woes against Utah were compounded when forward TJ Warren tied a season low with four points. Warren entered the game averaging 19.8 points a game.
"When our two leading scorers have a hard time scoring, it makes it difficult," Suns interim coach Jay Triano said.
More concerning to Triano, however, is his team's up-and-down defense. After limiting Dallas to 36.4 percent from the field in a 102-88 victory Wednesday, the Suns were burned by Utah's 56.7 percent shooting. Six of the Suns' last 10 opponents have made better than 50 percent from the field, and the occasional injury absences of Booker and forward Marquese Chriss can only go so far.
"It's probably the sign of a young basketball team, but it's disappointing to me," said Triano, who took over after the Suns lost their first three games.
"I'd like to think we make steps and we start moving in the right direction and then we take a step back. I want to be better, and I think our guys want to be better. I think they really care, and that's why sometimes we get emotional when things don't go right. We need to learn how to channel it better."
Chriss will be held out of Sunday's game because of what the Suns termed a "rules violation." Chriss had a verbal altercation with the Suns strength coach regarding his postgame routine, ESPN reported.
Chriss is not suspended but is being given a "cooling off" period, general manager Ryan McDonough told the Arizona Republic.
"He's a good kid who had a bad moment. We look forward to seeing him Monday morning and turning the page."
Charlotte has ridden Walker, who had 38 points in a 123-110 victory over Atlanta on Wednesday. He has made 14 of 25 3-point attempts in the last two games and 34 of 71 in the last seven.
Walker is averaging 29.6 points a game in the last seven, and his 136 3s are ninth in the league.
"I just want to win, man," Walker told reporters after playing 42:52 against Indiana, his second-longest stint of the season.
"I know sometimes I play big minutes, but a lot of the times it's me telling (Clifford) not to take me out. I want to do anything possible to help my teammates win."
The Hornets had a season-high 49 points in the first quarter against Indiana, a franchise record for points in any quarter. Walker finished it off with 13 points in the fourth while playing all 12 minutes.
In his decision to keep Walker on the floor, Clifford told reporters, "I thought it was a good idea and we went with it."
Suns rookie Josh Jackson has scored 20, 21 and 20 points in the three games since he was 0-for-13 from the field against Houston last Sunday. The 21 tied a career high. The stretch included a little mind game.
"These are the shoes I went 0-for-13 in," Jackson told reporters after his 20-point game against Utah, "and I purposely wore these today to prove to myself that they weren't bad luck and it was all in my head."
Updated February 3, 2018