PHOENIX – Further evidence of a troubled Phoenix Suns season arrived at U.S. Airways Center on Thursday night when the home team couldn’t even defeat the Milwaukee Bucks.
OK, so the Bucks (20-18) are pretty decent, by Eastern Conference standards. But we’re looking at their slouching in historical context, which tells us that some form of Suns voodoo was preventing the Bucks from scoring a victory here for quite a while.
But instead of our storyline registering as “2001: A Place Odyssey,” the Bucks emerged with a 98-94 victory. The 2001, by the way, would have been the number of victories the Suns have accumulated since the franchise’s inception. And the “Place” refers to Phoenix, where the Bucks hadn’t won since 1987.
So, instead of knocking off Milwaukee in Arizona for the 25th consecutive meeting, the Suns coughed up a 10-point lead (65-55, 7:25 of the third) en route to their 28th defeat in 41 games.
Slouching toward the top of the NBA Draft Lottery’s Ping-Ping combination race, the Suns have reached the season’s midway point by losing 13 of 15, 20 of 26 and failing to score 100 points in a game since Dec. 29. It also should be noted the potential youth movement — born of the realization that the playoffs are bye-bye – suggested earlier this week by Coach Alvin Gentry didn’t commence. That’s really not surprising, because there’s very little Suns youth needing to be served with more playing time.
Sure, Gentry could bump rookie point guard Kendall Marshall up to second on the positional depth chart, and provide more minutes for second-year power forward Markieff Morris. But just who else do the Suns need to audition? Michael Beasley has been in the league since 2008 and Wes Johnson will be 26 this summer.
Increasing minutes to gauge the long-term potential of players who haven’t produced in previous opportunities can seem unsavory for a coach and front-office executives on the last year of their contracts. Then again, maintaining the minutes for current rotation players isn’t exactly working, either.
To Gentry, the reasons are pretty simple.
“You’ve got to be able to make plays down the stretch to win games, especially close games,” he said. “We’re just not playing good right now, we’re not playing well.”
And the greatest issues continue to show up on offense.
Since Gentry inserted defensive ace P.J. Tucker into the starting lineup (the defensive performance of his team made it more than reasonable), the subsequent five-man rotations have been unable to generate points during crucial interludes. Moving a defensive-oriented player to the first unit crowds more shot-hungry-types onto the second unit while reducing the scoring chops of the first unit.
Without an elite talent on either group, the offense can nose dive in a hurry.
Over 48 minutes on Thursday, the Suns made only 38 percent of their shots from the field, including 4 of 14 from 3-point range. But, thanks to a closing first-half kick, they did manage 56 by intermission and had a three-point lead.
“We got the game to the point where we should have won,” Gentry said.
Back-to-back 19-point quarters to close the game were abetted by a rim-protecting 11 blocked shots from the Bucks, and dragged the Suns toward another losing predicament.
When asked for a post-mortem interpretation of his team’s offensive work, point guard Goran Dragic shook his head and issued a familiar review.
“Ball movement and spacing,” Dragic said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve had to say that, but it seems like every game.”
Another variable I’ve heard from Dragic on a few occasions this season is the absence of deep-shooting forward Channing Frye. It came up again Thursday.
“Without Channing, our spacing has been a problem,” Dragic said of Frye, who’s missed the entire season with dilated cardiomyopathy. “Channing gives us a different dimension. With him as a 3-point threat, we usually had four guys open at different spots on the floor.
“In the past, four players spread the floor and one big guy rolls or plays in the low post and creating from there you have more spacing. With this team, we don’t have this. In the past, we were a running team – we ran a lot and scored some easy layups. We don’t do that anymore.”
No, without Steve Nash on the payroll to kick the ball ahead and run pick-and-roll from a spread-the-court formation, Gentry opted to run the Corner-series offense … as have coaches from several NBA teams.
He was hoping the Suns’ lack of off-the-dribble hotshots could be overcome by passing and cutting based on reading how the defense handled each phase of the Corner series.
Unfortunately, the trust level of the offense – and each other – has prevented this structure to yield consistent movement. With intuitive players who also are willing to share the ball, this offense can have great results.
Anyway, what may qualify as good news is the schedule. The Suns won’t suit up again until playing the Kings in Sacramento next Wednesday. They play the Los Angeles Clippers here the following night.
It’s hard to imagine how several days of practice could do any harm.