PHOENIX – Judging the impact of the Lindsey Hunter Experiment can be a bit tricky when recent evidence is limited to a pair of weekend dates with the mighty Oklahoma City Thunder.
The last of these events ended with the Phoenix Suns needing a Wes Johnson tip-dunk at 7.8 seconds remaining to avoid establishing a new single-game, franchise record for fewest points. The 1981 Suns once staggered to a 68-point finish against the Kansas City Kings.
“We got that one out of the way … hopefully,” Hunter, interim head coach of the Suns, said in regard to Sunday’s statistical poleaxing in OKC’s 97-69 win at U.S. Airways Center.
“In this process, sometimes you take two steps back,” Hunter, who has presided over 7 losses in 11 games since Alvin Gentry and the franchise decided he should be replaced, said during a stab at post-game pragmatism. “It’s one game and you move on.”
Actually, it’s two. The Suns, who lost by 31 on Friday in Oklahoma City, were throttled in all phases at both venues. Now 17-35 overall, it’s hardly a revelation to note they were outclassed by the Thunder (39-12).
So, instead of reminding ourselves about the disparate abilities of both teams, let’s take a look at the bigger – if temporary – picture.
“The one thing – when I was hired for this situation – was develop character, develop young guys and see who’s in and who’s not in,” Hunter said before the game. “I deliver that message directly and let them know exactly what I expect.”
Since quantifying character and buy-in levels may require a bit more time, let’s take a look at how Sunday’s exercise reflected on Phoenix’s humble youth movement.
We’ll begin with rookie point guard Kendall Marshall, who actually started the second half alongside Goran Dragic.
“I wanted to try to get us kick-started with Goran at the two,” Hunter said.
This double-point-guard attack was something Hunter utilized to decent results last week, and if provided Marshall with an opportunity to go up against OKC acrobat Russell Westbrook.
With this direct matchup for close to the entire third quarter, Marshall wasn’t exactly annihilated over that span. Westbrook scored 5 points in the period, but that included a fast-break layup.
OK, so the layup opportunity was created when Marshall dribbled into the lane with just over 6 minutes left in the quarter, jumped a bit looking for a passing option, didn’t find anyone open and created a dead-ball turnover. After Westbrook converted in a jiffy, OKC was up 64-44 and Hunter called time out for a presumed teaching moment.
To the good, Marshall made 3 of 4 shots from the field (including 1 of 2 from 3-point distance).
By the way, with Marshall in the second half starting lineup, Jared Dudley was moved to the Suns’ bench. Apparently, recent reports that claim the Suns are waving Dudley at the New York Knicks as trade bait didn’t turn this event into a Dudley showcase.
Hunter said the decision to sit Dudley the entire second half was the product of a huge Thunder lead and little subsequent reason to throw JD back out there before Tuesday’s game with the Lakers in L.A.
“I can’t control playing time,” Dudley said. “When I’m out there, I’m going to play the right way. I’m not going to just throw up shots because we were losing. That’s not my style of play.
“Coaches are paid to coach and I’m paid to play, so when I’m out there, I’m going to give it 100 percent.”
Two more Suns’ test-drive-type young players – Markieff Morris and Michael Beasley – were busy, for a while. Morris scored 12 points (on 5-of-13 shooting) and had 4 rebounds, while Beasley put 8 boards up with his 2-of-11 shooting performance.
As usual, several of Beasley’s trips into the lane ended with difficult shot attempts. This seeming reluctance to play to contact resulted in zero free-throw attempts, and may have sparked a team-wide contagion.
During their 69-point performance, the Suns were awarded a measly 5 free-throw attempts on only 7 Thunder fouls. A more aggressive posture on offense might have engaged the referees’ whistles a bit more, but with OKC swatting 9 Phoenix shots, settling must have been in order.
The statistical blitz also included a season-low 33 percent shooting overall and 22 turnovers.
“It wasn’t one thing,” Hunter said. “It was a combination of a lot of things.”
So, with the Suns looking very much like a team reverting to its pre-coaching-change performances, what does that mean for Hunter?
“I stay encouraged and I’m going to keep encouraging our guys,” he said. “I told them, ‘Guys it’s one game. I’ve seen worse.’ “
That’s also true for long-time Suns fans … but only once.