PHOENIX — Hoping to reveal a few changes with even more long-range impact than Michael Beasley’s new hairstyle, the Phoenix Suns brought some alterations home to US Airways Center on Thursday night.
Waiting for them were the Los Angeles Clippers, who — working without superstar point guard Chris Paul — were downgraded from Lob City to Lob Suburb. The Western Conference’s third-seeded team didn’t have enough juice to avoid their third consecutive loss, falling 93-88 in the home debut of Suns interim head coach Lindsey Hunter.
With Wednesday’s triumph over the Kings in Sacramento as their re-launch point, the Suns unveiled a few Hunter-inspired differences. While the same players demonstrated a sense of urgency during portions of their 13-28 start under since-departed Alvin Gentry, they do seem to be playing a bit more for each other than before.
That’s not exactly rare after any coaching change, but this two-game run of seemingly increased focus began during Hunter’s first practices.
“Sometimes during the practices we had before, two or three guys wouldn’t pay attention when the coach was talking,” Suns point guard Goran Dragic said. “But that happens a lot in the NBA; in Europe, there’s no talking.
“The first two or three practices with Lindsey have been like that. He said we can talk on defense, but that’s it … not when coaches are talking.”
With management’s call for upgraded “accountability and discipline” quickly insinuated into Suns practices, Dragic did his best to walk the moratorium on idle talk against the Clippers. Working against defensive-minded Paul backup Eric Bledsoe, “The Dragon” knocked in 19 first-half points, finishing with 24 to go along with eight assists.
“It’s difficult,” Dragic said in regard to carrying on without Gentry. “He was very important for my career, and I appreciate everything he did for me. But I understand this is a business.”
To become more accountable during games, practice has reached a more businesslike level that goes beyond focus.
“We’re running more,” Dragic said, referring to Hunter’s emphasis on transitioning from defense to offense through the use of specific drills. “The focus is higher now in practice. Before, after drills there would be a minute or two before the next drill with a lot of standing around. But now we go from one drill right to the next so our tempo in practice can be like we want in games.”
In Sacramento, the Suns created a pace sufficient to help them reach triple digits (106) for the first time since Dec. 29. The Corner-series offense — something Gentry attempted to establish with players who were either unable or unwilling to read and react — was scrapped in favor of early opportunities or sets to create shots for specific players.
“We didn’t run it once,” Suns swingman Jared Dudley said of the Corner. “We’re running some traditional half-court sets now, but Lindsey told us that if we play good defense and get run-outs, we won’t have to run as many plays.”
In Thursday’s competition upgrade from the Clippers, the Suns were required to grind their way to the finish line. Paying more attention to help-side defense and rotations, the Suns held the Clippers to 39.8 percent shooting from the floor. It’s something they Suns have been preparing for since last weekend’s coaching upheaval.
“The mood is different,” Dudley said. “He (Hunter) is more of a soft-spoken guy, while Alvin was more upbeat. There’s a lot of attention to detail. But a lot of the things we’re doing are similar to what Alvin did.
“They (the front office) said they want more accountability to discipline. I think the problem was that with nine new guys, it’s hard to get everyone on the same page.”
Even though they seem to be sharing the same chapter at this point, several variables haven’t exactly been purged. Despite leading at intermission, the Suns (15-28) had committed 10 turnovers, leading to 10 Clipper points, and were beaten for 14 offensive rebounds over 48 minutes.
One night after going for 15 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, Beasley missed 8 of 12 shots from the field. The Suns’ hybrid forward has scored 15 or more points nine times but has only reached that level twice at home. Prior to Thursday’s game, he had made 43 percent of his field-goal attempts on the road, but just 33 percent at home.
For Hunter, the team’s considerable regression preceded this 2-0 work in progress. As he said after last Sunday’s practice, he’s not looking at a quick schematic for constructing Rome.
“I think guys are trying to figure it out as we go along … without much practice time,” he said. “All I ask is that no matter what you do, mistake or not, hustle back on defense and keep giving effort.”