PHOENIX – Something refreshing occurred during another Phoenix Suns game that was staggering its way toward “Groundhog Day” sanctioning.
Yeah, the Suns did lose Sunday night to the 41-29 Brooklyn Nets, but the horror-show manner that defined the two previous home games was replaced by a pretty uplifting performance. Even though the outcome was positive for those with NBA Draft Lottery considerations, this was a good loss for a more important reason.
“If we could have that type of effort every night, we will take it,” Suns interim head coach Lindsey Hunter said after Phoenix lost 102-100, dropping to 10-20 on his watch. “We will take it and we will walk off the court with our heads high because we fought, and that is the message.
“That’s what we’re trying to develop.”
The “that” he’s referring to is the aggressiveness and focus that turned a 16-point first-half deficit into a nail-biter decided when Hamed Haddadi was unable to convert an intentionally missed Goran Dragic free throw into a game-winning putback.
Dragic and P.J. Tucker, the Suns’ ranking game-in, game-out effort players, dragged an entire team closer toward the desired culture change by working even harder.
“Goran and P.J. were unbelievable tonight,” Hunter said. “Every single minute. We’re asking P.J. to guard point guards, two guards, forwards, power forwards and sometimes centers. He just goes out and he leaves it out there. You can respect that, you can live with that.
“The same thing with Goran. Every single night he goes out there and he brings it. With those guys leading us into the future, that is the example we want.”
Tucker, who was 7 of 9 for 14 points and also pulled down eight rebounds, earned most of his modest NBA paycheck Sunday night by guarding Nets superstar point guard Deron Williams. Williams finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds, but Tucker’s work against him earned the respect of Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo.
“He really competes and he defends really well,” Carlesimo said of Tucker. “He played well against us both times.”
Without the chore of attempting to stay in front of Williams on defense, Dragic turned it loose on offense, scoring a game-high 31 points, collecting 12 dimes and grabbing nine rebounds.
“It doesn’t matter about statistics,” Dragic said. “I try to win games, and unfortunately we lost. You know, if you play hard, something good is going to happen.”
The not-playing-hard part – at least not playing hard consistently – is what’s been vexing to Hunter, some of his players, Suns management and Suns fans. When not being poleaxed by the Washington Wizards or Minnesota Timberwolves, for example, the Suns have managed to win half of their last eight games against teams with winning records.
So when second-year power forward Markieff Morris fights the Nets for 15 rebounds – including nine on the offensive end – Suns observers wonder why playing with such purpose doesn’t happen more often with more players.
A different caliber of focus is associated with swingman Wesley Johnson, who – despite a recent run of success – still requires instructions to be more assertive with the ball in his hands.
Johnson (21 points) did miss 11 of 18 shots from the field, but his trio of 3-point bombs between the 2:12 and :59.5 marks in the third quarter defined a 33-20 period for the Suns. The fourth overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft had 17 points in the third after scoring just one in the first half.
“He passed up two shots and was being timid,” Hunter said of Johnson. I told him, ‘If you pass up another shot, I’m pulling you out and you will never play the rest of game.’ If that is what we have to do, than that will be the threat that we hold over his head every night.”
In general, team-wide terms, add Johnson to the list of employees confounded by the Suns’ lack of consistency.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” he said when asked why the Suns don’t play with a similar passion every night. “I think we have to collectively just go out there with a mindset and focus that we’re going to play like that.
“We go at it in practice and try to kill each other in practice every day. We just have to carry it over.”