PHOENIX – Thanks to the New Orleans Hornets, Minnesota Timberwolves and themselves, the Phoenix Suns once again are in sole possession of the worst record in the NBA’s Western Conference.
The Hornets spent Friday night knocking off the Memphis Grizzlies, enabling the Suns to climb into fourth-place tie for Ping-Pong position related to the draft lottery.
The shorter-handed Suns did their part by losing to the T-wolves (24-43), who ended a nine-game road losing streak with a 117-86 victory at US Airways Center.
Two nights after 80 percent of Phoenix’s second unit turned in a clunker during a home loss to the Washington Wizards, the Suns achieved defeat through more of a total team effort.
Although the Suns weren’t exactly on fire early, they were within five – at 17-12 – when Minnesota unleashed a zone defense at 5:38 of the first quarter.
By the time the second quarter began, the Suns – getting a bit sidetracked by scruffy ball and player movement – were down, 31-18.
It also should be noted the Suns were only down by a deuce when acting center Luis Scola was awarded his second personal foul with about eight minutes to go in the opening quarter. Scola sat down for the rest of the period and returned to start the second with Phoenix down by 13.
In securing their official elimination from the 2013 playoffs, the Suns shot 37.9 percent from the field – up almost 5 percent from Wednesday – and permitted the T-wolves to make shots at a 53 percent rate.
Point guard Goran Dragic (13 points, 10 assists) and Scola (17 points, 12 rebounds) battled their way to double-doubles.
Here are some additional takeaways regarding the Suns, who now sit at 23-47 and tied with the Detroit Pistons for the league’s fourth-worst winning percentage.
WE HOPE WES WASN’T CRAVIN’ REVENGE
Wes Johnson, who’s been giving the Suns 12.9 points per game since moving into the starting lineup, didn’t exactly provide his former team with a how-do-you-like-me-now moment.
Johnson, selected by the T-wolves with the fourth pick in the 2010 draft and traded to the Suns last summer, missed 10 of 12 shots against his old team and finished with 7 points.
Working at shooting guard, the 6-foot-7 Johnson was matched against 6-2 Luke Ridnour in Minnesota’s double-point-guard (with Ricky Rubio) alignment, but was unable to do much positive work in the Suns’ posting-up game plan.
To the good, Johnson – who typically roams the perimeter hunting 3s – did trot out a couple of first-quarter spin moves toward the rim, but didn’t finish either play with a basket.
Despite Friday’s overall setback, Johnson still checks in as one Suns player that has flourished (in relative terms) recently.
“Confidence,” is the first word interim coach Lindsey Hunter used to describe the improvement. “Just giving him the ability to out and make mistakes and go out and grow. And just play without worrying about taking a bad shot or making a mistake — just go out and play.
“I think that’s meant the world to him, by showing confidence in him. We believe he can play.”
Johnson, who recently said he’d like to return to Phoenix next season, is on course to become a free agent this summer. It’ll be interesting to see how many other teams believe he can play and how much they might invest in that belief.
MARCH MADNESS FLU?
Jared Dudley, who was ailing and didn’t play much against the Wizards on Wednesday, missed Friday’s game with a reported stomach virus.
Center Jermaine O’Neal, who injured his foot in the loss to Washington, also was out for the showdown with Minnesota.
“I guess a slight sprain or something,” Hunter said. “Nothing serious-serious. I think he has a touch of the stomach flu, too.”
With O’Neal unavailable, Hamed Haddadi produced six points and eight rebounds in almost 16 minutes of court time.
UPGRADING NICKNAME TO ‘POLISH SLEDGEHAMMER’
Injured center Marcin Gortat, huffing and puffing around U.S. Airways Center on crutches before Friday’s game, took a break to chat with reporters.
Admitting that locomotion on crutches is quite the upper-body workout, Gortat said, “My arms are going to be ridiculous when I get back.”
Speaking of ridiculous, the Suns have surrendered 111 or more points in four games since Gortat was injured on March 6. They’re 2-7 without their starting center.
SO THAT’S HOW IT WORKS?
The Corner-series offense attempted by the Suns under former coach Alvin Gentry was on display Friday.
And the display was provided by the T-wolves, whose head coach, Rick Adelman, invented it. OK, the Corner has certain elements of Pete Carril’s Princeton offense and the good ol’ Triangle, but it’s still pretty much Adelman’s baby.
With Steve Nash gone and the Suns continuing to lack a go-to scorer, Gentry – along with long-time Adelman assistant Elston Turner – attempted to implement this offensive system to generate shots for whoever became open based on reaction to the defense.
It didn’t work very well and was scrapped when Hunter took over.
Despite the absence of franchise player Kevin Love, Minnesota was able to use the Corner to help hang 76 points – shooting 58 percent – on Phoenix in the opening half.
Four current Suns players played for Adelman (Goran Dragic and Luis Scola in Houston; Johnson and Michael Beasley in Minnesota), but the expected translation didn’t happen here.
With Chase Budinger healthy and back in the Minnesota rotation, the T-wolves now have two former University of Arizona stars contributing.
The other Minnesota ‘Cat, starting forward Derrick Williams, has knocked in 21 or more points six times since Feb. 13.
“He’s more confident,” Adelman said of Williams, who was selected by the T-wolves with the second pick in the 2011 draft. “He’s getting the minutes out on the court. He’s been shooting better It’s a nightly thing in this league; you have to be consistent night in and night out.”
On Friday night, Williams – working only 14 minutes in the rout – missed both of his field-goal attempts and finished with four points and six rebounds.