PHOENIX – The potential for a really long Tuesday night at U.S. Airways Center was evident when the pre-game activities included a middle school band playing that ubiquitous “Gangnam Style” tune.
The kids were talented and did a really nice job with it, but still …
Anyway, our second clue arrived when the Phoenix Suns ended the first quarter with 16 points – on 30-percent shooting from the field – and had the lead.
We quickly went from clues to solid evidence. The Suns, for example, rang the bell for 11 more points in the third quarter. They missed 9 of the 14 free throws they were obligated to chuck during the 53 of action.
When it was over, the Suns limited the Minnesota Timberwolves to 77 points through 48 minutes, but required overtime to finally subdue another truly struggling team, 84-83.
“We made it a little tougher on ourselves,” interim coach Lindsey Hunter said, “but we’ll take it. We still have a lot to work on.”
What might – in the box score — appear to be a rare eruption of defense was little more than clunky basketball. And despite the long-established notion that no NBA win can be considered bad, this one was begging for the label.
By the way, any presumed bad nature of the Suns’ first victory in four games had little to do with surrendering the lottery-looming rank of third-worst record in the NBA. Yeah, that gift from the red-hot Washington Wizards lasted about 24 hours. But if the Suns’ recent performances are a prelude to this season’s closing kick, falling up to third may not be a problem.
Despite sort of gutting out a win over a team that’s no slouch at slouching, the 19-39 Suns are a considerable distance from nailing down a positive change in culture. With culture change as the franchise mandate, the past week might not have done much to engender confidence in Hunter’s future with Phoenix.
Instead of prolonging that honeymoon-style interlude following a coaching change, the Suns (now 6-11 under Hunter) are regressing in their level of play. The lineups are a bit different these days (Wesley Johnson knocked in 14 points and had nine rebounds against his former team) and some schemes have been adjusted, but that’s really no excuse for the diminished execution. We’re frequently told the focus and attention to detail have risen in practice, but it hasn’t translated to games.
One demonstration followed a timeout to set up a basket from Marcin Gortat that sent the game into overtime. Standing straightaway behind the 3-point arc, point guard Goran Dragic had to summon a post player (Gortat) to deliver a ball screen that (we presume) had been ordered during the previous huddle.
“I’m really happy that we actually could do well that last play when Marcin hit that layup to put it into overtime,” Dragic said.
Just having someone finally show up to throw him a screen may have been cause for celebration.
But the grind-it-out game wasn’t without some redeeming value.
A bounce-back performance by the second unit in the second quarter enabled the Suns to build a 14-point lead. The bench, by the way, contributed 44 points on the night.
But a Minnesota zone allowed the Wolves to wreck any bid for additional Phoenix momentum in the third quarter.
“We had some trouble with that,” Dragic said of the zone. “We were missing shots and they were scoring, and I think we lost a little bit of confidence.”
But after his team had been poleaxed by the Celtics and Spurs, Dragic wasn’t quibbling about the artistic nature of the win.
“It feels great,” he said. “I mean we get a win.”
And Wednesday night, they get the Spurs in San Antonio. They’ll need a bit more than accurate free-throw shooting to be competitive.
Since the Suns knocked in 106 points against the Sacramento Kings during Hunter’s first game, they’ve reached triple-digits only one additional time. That happened at Portland in the first game after the All-Star break. Dragic handed out 18 assists that night (10 in the opening quarter), inspiring Suns observers to wonder why that doesn’t happen more often.
“We were moving the ball well,” Dragic said after that game. “But they (Trail Blazers) didn’t play good defense. They really had trouble defending pick and roll.”
There seems to be a lot of that going around.
Without injured Kevin Love, the Wolves (20-34) are staggering through this season, too. But the Suns did manage to be stingy enough on defense to survive their own sideways shooting (21 turnovers that led to 25 points) with the ball.
Think about that. They gave up 25 points via turnovers and still allowed only 83 for the game. That’s a sign that the culture is changing, right?
Maybe, but the Timberwolves are due for an assist.