Suns lose opportunity to rise in loss to Kings

PHOENIX — The long, winding and powerhouse-lined road that — if things turn terrifically pleasant — would lead the Suns to the Western Conference playoffs has taken a detour down Queasy Street.

And for the second season in a row, it looks like Phoenix may be required to settle for the less-preferred neighborhood of playoff-adjacent.

The most tummy-rumbling issue in Wednesday’s 108-99 loss to the lowly Sacramento Kings at was the squandered opportunity. Well, sure, the opportunity was really important, but the lack of focus amid the circumstances is truly disturbing.

"It’s the same thing we talk about all the time," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek, referring to the Kings’ 31-point first quarter, said. "You can’t let a team get going in the first quarter."

While the Suns and their recently bulked-up defense allowed the Kings (now 26-45) to get comfy, the San Antonio Spurs demolished the eighth-place Oklahoma City Thunder.

And the ninth-plce New Orleans Pelicans already were vanquished by the Houston Rockets.

So, instead of moving past the Pelicans and closing to within two games of OKC, all the Suns did was keep pace.

Unfortunately, with only 10 games left to make up the difference renders the Suns’ third loss to the Kings this season — one to each of Sacramento’s coaches for the 2014-2015 campaign — as something dangerously close to a death blow.

How can a team that demonstrated such unexpected defensive pluck during a four-game win streak — including back-to-back triumphs over the Rockets and Dallas Mavericks — slouch in an important shift?

Kings 108, Suns 99

"A lot of times, it starts with the point guard," Hornacek said, referring to Eric Bledsoe as the first responder against an offensive attack.

Yeah, Bledsoe, who’s been rising to lead-dog status of late, didn’t exactly bring it Wednesday. It should be noted, however, that instead of battling one of the Western Conference’s legion of superstar point guards, Bled’s most-impactful foe was a stomach bug.

"Yeah, he’s got stomach flu," Hornacek said, "and Brandon Knight not being able to play … it might’ve been night where maybe he didn’t play, but you can kind of tell, he didn’t have the same energy that he’s had the last four or five games. That didn’t help us much either, trying to get him a few minutes, then some minutes rest and the third quarter he said he was feeling a little better, so we let him go a little longer in that third quarter."

After missing six games, Knight was supposed to be dribbling back to the rescue, but his sprained left ankle hasn’t been rehabilitated to the point where the talented combo guard felt prepared to compete. According to Hornacek, Knight wanted to give it a whirl, but felt some discomfort in his Achilles tendon.

So the responsibility of running the team and providing much of the scoring fell to the sick guy.

"I’m a little weak right now," Bledsoe said when it was over, "but when you step on the court, all excuses go out the window. Nobody cares if you’re sick."

Although this illness may not linger like a sprained ankle, the timing reminds us a year ago, when Goran Dragic’s injured wheel caused the Suns to limp to the finish line.

Base case, this will be a one-game dilemma; it’s also one game the Suns really needed to put in the victory vault.

"With Eric being sick, I think he was trying to conserve a little energy for the second half," Hornacek said. "But we just let them do what they wanted. We let guys cut — and part of that is when you’re looking at (DeMarcus) Cousins on how are you going to go help on him — you get caught turning your head."

This head turning enabled Kings forward Derrick Williams to make basket cuts for three alley-oop dunks. And with Bledsoe’s teammates following his lead of not putting pressure on the ball, Sacramento point guards Ray McCallum and Andre Miller were able to just make any pass required to generate a basket.

The Kings, who shoot a middle-of-NBA-the-pack 45 percent from the field, converted 49.4 percent of their attempts against a Suns defense that had been first in the league for efficiency over the last week. Sacramento, which checks in 30th among NBA teams for assists at 17 per game, piled up 27 Wednesday at US Airways Center.

The Suns did force the Kings into 19 turnovers and claimed a slight rebounding edge, but the home team also shot 17 of 26 at the free-throw line and committed 18 miscues of their own.

For positive spins, the Suns did receive 24 points — on 9-of-16 shooting — and seven rebounds from Markieff Morris. Bledsoe made 7 of 15 shots and mustered 19. Archie Goodwin continued to make plays, scoring 11 of his 15 points in the opening half.

But attention to detail was, like Bledsoe, infirm.

"It was just little things," Hornacek said. "I thought they outhustled us for balls or loose balls that were bouncing around that we didn’t get. We tried to fight at the end, but by then it was a little late."

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