(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
PHOENIX — The story coming into Friday night for the Phoenix Suns was a lack of engagement and energy in their last two games, the games in which they scored nine total points in each of their last two first quarters.
By the time the second quarter started, both games were effectively over.
Luckily for Suns fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena for a tilt against the Miami Heat, the intensity was there at the jump and the Suns scored 36 points in a game that was mildly competitive throughout.
In the end, the Suns’ lack of offensive firepower and defensive shortcomings made the Heat too comfortable and Miami pulled away in the second half of a 115-98 loss.
“The energy was much, much better than last night, which is not really a compliment to our team,” head coach Igor Kokoskov said after the game. “I think before we start a game, they felt us. We came ready to compete and play a good team.”
The Suns were once again without Devin Booker (left hamstring strain) and T.J. Warren (right ankle soreness) for the third straight game and it showed. After the strong opening, Phoenix scored 62 points combined in the last three quarters.
A poor defensive effort by Phoenix was encapsulated by where Miami scored from. Of the Heat’s 115 points, 113 came from the paint, three-point field goals or free throws. Miami also picked up 29 points off the Suns’ 21 turnovers.
“Turnovers cost us the game,” Kokoskov said. “You know when you turn over the ball 20, 21 times, and then they score  points off your turnovers, live turnovers, then it’s hard to complete a game.”
Phoenix has lost eight straight and is now 0-7 without Booker this season.
After a change in the starting lineup the night prior that stirred up some conversation, the switch-up made Kokoskov this time would be at point guard.
Rookie Elie Okobo failed to get the offense in a rhythm in his last two starts, especially in those first quarters, so it was no surprise to see the other rookie guard De’Anthony Melton get the nod for his first career start.
As it is for most rookie point guards, the performance from Melton was a mixed bag.
With less than 4:30 remaining in the first half, the Suns led 45-43. But an offensive rut that included two Melton turnovers and a missed jumper produced a 9-0 Heat run in less than two minutes.
Melton was pulled but the surge for Miami continued and the Suns trailed the Heat 60-50 at halftime.
In the third quarter, though, Melton scored 12 points and had three assists, attempting to cancel out a rough offensive quarter for the Suns.
Like Okobo, Melton shows a good feel for getting to his spots. The key for the rookie will be how often he can make the right decision in those spots and if he can make shots from them.
“I felt like he played really good,” Suns wing Josh Jackson said of Melton. “Made a few careless turnovers but the more the game went on he got more and more comfortable.”
You need playing time for that, as Jackson would note, and hopefully Melton continues to get that because his defense can change games.
Melton is learning angles still as a rookie and where he can gamble but he’s starting to get better and better every game. His instincts and length as a defender are top-notch.
Elsewhere, it was another rough go for Jackson.
At this point in 21-year-old’s career, the Suns have to take the good with the bad. After struggling with shot selection and efficiency early in the season, Jackson has eliminated most of his bad mid-range jumpers.
That’s good, but what that leads to is Jackson playing at his usual high-octane pace slashing into the lane more where his decision-making still needs plenty of work.
His six turnovers were bad, but his nine free-throw attempts came from that mentality, which is good.
With the former No. 4 overall pick, Phoenix has to hope Jackson uses this change in playstyle to improve on the choices he makes as a ball-handler.
Jackson continues to make energy plays like this, in the meantime, and if he can become a positive offensive player as a slasher and cut down the back-breaking decisions, there’s hope for his long-term outlook.
We got our usual Deandre Ayton performance. A couple of screw-ups, a lack of engagement on the little things like defensive rotations and setting screens and another double-double. He posted 16 points and 11 rebounds on 8-of-11 shooting.
In a nod to his lack of physical play around the rim, Ayton had zero free-throw attempts and has now had two or less in each of his last six games.
If the Suns’ defense was a bit better, 18 points from Troy Daniels off the bench might have been the difference, but it wasn’t with the 115 Miami scored.
At a 4-22 record, though, and how ugly the last two losses were, the Suns will take the progress they made in the second game of a back-to-back.
“I felt like the effort was definitely there tonight,” Jackson said. “What I was more excited about is that it was there from the beginning and it didn’t take us taking a punch and realizing, ‘Oh, we’re in a fight now and we have to play.’
“So that was really good, that was one of our main focuses. We just have to keep coming out strong in the beginning. I think the beginning of the game determines a lot so today we gave ourselves a chance.”