Falling to Spurs helps Suns rise up on down list

PHOENIX — In a race being run backward, the Phoenix Suns are about to catch another competitor.

For now, there are three NBA teams with winning percentages darn-near equal to or even worse than the 18-39 Suns (the Washington Wizards check in at .315 to the Suns’ .316.).

Defeat No. 39 was accomplished Sunday at US Airways Center, where the San Antonio Spurs — working without Tony Parker — tuned the Suns, 97-87.

Parker — recently playing his way into MVP speculation — has a skeeter bite or something on his right triceps and took the night off.

It didn’t matter to the Spurs, who were on the last leg of their annual Rodeo Road Trip.

“Once you have your foundation and culture, you know what to expect,” Suns interim head coach Lindsey Hunter said in tribute to how the team with the league’s top record can maintain a high level of play when not at full strength. “It’s a testament to Pop (Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich) and his system and the culture they’ve built.”

By the way, one Spur who did play was crusty, ol’ Tim Duncan, the largest section in the aforementioned foundation upon which much of San Antonio’s reputation has been built.

And Duncan’s presence can provoke thoughts about how sensational karma has teamed with organizational wisdom to create prolonged success.

You may recall the Spurs already were pretty salty when Duncan was a college junior. But superstar David Robinson was injured the next season, enabling San Antonio to lose with enough gusto to reach the 1997 draft lottery. With Duncan sticking around Wake Forest through his senior season (yeah, that was pretty rare even then), their lottery triumph is the main reason for this run of excellent basketball.

Yes, the Spurs have a terrific coach, made stellar draft heists with picks that occurred way after the lottery (Parker and Manu Ginbobili) and have been smart enough to find snug-fitting role players to blend with their stars.

If Robinson had been hurt one year later, things would have been trickier, because the lottery yield was a bit more modest. The top big man on the 1998 draft lists was Michael Olowokandi.

So, while the Suns have slouched their way into Ping-Pong contention for their highest pick since taking Armon Gilliam with the second overall selection in 1987, losing is only part of this rebuilding battle.

Anyway, now 1-4 in their retro black uniforms, the Suns shot 37 percent from the field and burped up 20 turnovers to lose for the 11th time in 16 games under Hunter.

“I think our effort was much, much better,” Hunter, comparing this loss to Friday’s stinker with the Boston Celtics, said. “We’ll continue to chip away at getting better.”

The first chip we’ll review is Marcus Morris. The newest Sun in uniform provided a little evidence that he might be able to hold his own at small forward.

In addition to bagging a runner following a nice dribble move in the second quarter, Marcus had two impressive defensive plays on one San Antonio possession. The first maneuver was a hustling close out against quick-moving Spurs three man Kawhi Leonard that prevented the launch of a 3-pointer without compromising Morris’ defensive stance — which remained sufficient to discourage a drive to the bucket.

After a ball reversal, Marcus rotated back into the paint for a shot block against 6-foot-11 Tiago Splitter.

In the fourth quarter, he chased down a transition miss by teammate Goran Dragic for a follow slam even with the Suns down by double digits.

“His overall approach is what I really like,” Hunter said of the new Morris. “He plays with an edge. And that — especially against guys like that (Spurs) — is what you need.”

Marcus finished the night with 7 points (he missed 5 of 7 shots and half of his 6 free throws) and 5 rebounds in 20:30 on the clock. Twin brother Markieff played 16:59, posting 9 points, 7 rebounds and 6 fouls.

Marcus’ playing time is contrasted by the 3:20 cameo for Michael Beasley, whose uprising under Hunter is on hold. On Oscar night, Zero Dark Jersey finished with two more zeroes in the points and assists columns.

Additional look-see Suns include rookie point guard Kendall Marshall, who didn’t exactly tear it up in the first 4:43 of the second quarter. Marshall entered the game with his team up 21-19; the Suns’ offense didn’t scratch with Kendall running what qualifies as the show, while San Antonio reeled off 14 unanswered points.

Marshall, to be fair, deserves only 20 percent of the credit for a lethargic Phoenix start to the second period.

“You can’t come in and then the energy level goes down,” Hunter said in testimony aimed at the entire second unit. “You have to amp it up five or six more tiers.”

Marshall’s second-half minutes went to Diante Garrett, who missed all three of his shots from the field, but what quick enough to reach the lane and record 3 assists against 0 turnovers.

The Suns received another strong effort from Dragic, but their starting point guard missed 11 of 14 shots.

“I’m not very satisfied with my game,” Dragic said. “I shot the ball really bad, but the game is over and you cannot change that. All I can do is prepare myself for the next one.”