PHOENIX — The Suns’ restored point-guard axis demonstrated its power potential during Friday’s victory over the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City. On Saturday night at U.S. Airways Center, we witnessed a demonstration of why the pairing of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe may not always work as smoothly.
Taking on the Jazz again, the tandem combined for 37 points but was unable to prevent a 112-104 Phoenix loss that ended a modest winning streak (two) and dropped the Suns to 9-8.
With Dragic handing out nine assists, he and Bledsoe combined for 11 assists but also six turnovers. A couple additional rough spots suggest more time is required for the Phoenix offense to really click.
Unfortunately, Saturday’s primary issue with the Dragic-Bledsoe project occurred on the other end of the floor, where the Suns weren’t stellar in any defensive aspect.
“Our guys thought they could just show up and win the game,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek — sounding more disgusted than we’ve heard him thus far — said of his team’s focus in general and its defense in particular.
A microcosm of the defensive problem was a Dragic-Bledsoe issue that’s hardly surprising.
Playing two PGs at the same time can be a matchup dilemma that works both ways.
So, when Hornacek started the 6-foot Bledsoe in the second half of his second game since returning from a pesky shin injury, his matchup with 6-7 Richard Jefferson inspired Utah to station Jefferson in the post.
Jefferson, the former Moon Valley High and University of Arizona star, scored 10 of his 15 points in the third quarter, mostly while posting up Bledsoe (twice) and then Dragic when Hornacek switched the defensive assignments of his two point guards.
Although injuries prevented Dragic and Bledsoe from sharing the floor for extended minutes earlier this year, this was the first time an opponent aggressively attacked their defense in the post.
“It was, but still … you can’t get panicked,” Hornacek said. “You have to fight through it. First of all, they (the point guards) have got to fight harder.
“And second, if they lob it over the top, which they did once, our weak side normally should be there. I don’t know what they were thinking.”
The attempted third-quarter, matchup exploitation included Dragic (who had a game-high 24 points) taking Jefferson off the dribble twice and scoring when the Suns had the ball, forcing Utah to assign Gordon Hayward (a 6-9 swingman) the duty of defending the Phoenix lefty.
These chess matches will continue as the season rolls along and interested parties examine the efficacy of a two-point-guard backcourt. It’s something the Suns automatically anticipated after acquiring Bledsoe — one of the league’s most-coveted available players — with Dragic already on board.
But in addition to battling bigger players in the post and having teammates with lob-help awareness, the Suns have to better take advantage of their advantage in quickness.
As Hornacek pointed out, Saturday represented the third consecutive game his team — which leads the NBA in fast-break points per game — was outscored in transition.
“We don’t push it when Goran doesn’t have the ball,” he said.
With two primary-type ball handlers on the floor at once, excessive dribbling can become an even bigger problem. Sometimes being unselfish means kicking the ball ahead rather than feeling compelled or obligated to make the play yourself.
A relaxed defensive approach, however, can corrupt a team in additional ways.
“Your defense is going to help your offense … if we actually played any,” Hornacek said. “Then we can get stops and run.”
Thanks to the loss to the 3-15 Jazz, the Suns’ November included a 1-3 mark in combined two-game dates with Utah and the Sacramento Kings. Those teams have a combined seven victories.
“Maybe it’s human nature that you win a couple of games … but that’s what separates the teams that are average teams looking at maybe getting an eighth spot (in the playoffs) to the championship-type teams,” Hornacek said. “We want to push them to, at some point, get to that level.
“You don’t see the San Antonio Spurs or the Miami Heat come out like that … maybe once a year, but probably not even that. We have to get to that level.”