Defensive concerns linger despite Suns’ offensive explosion

PHOENIX — The Suns put on an offensive clinic at US Airways Center on Sunday night, owning the ultra-fast pace to score a season high 129 points in a win over the injury-depleted Atlanta Hawks.

But the offensive explosion wasn’t much cause for celebration, for behind it hid a troublesome trend.

If the 129-120 victory wasn’t enough indication that neither team played very much defense, the Suns admitted as much after the game.

"This is five games in a row that we haven’t played great defense," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. "It’s a little bit concerning, but it’s a win for us. Some nights the offense wins a game for you, and tonight maybe it did."

The offense did lift the Suns (35-24) to a two-game winning streak, which came on the heels of a three-game skid, but the defense in that stretch has left plenty to be desired. In that span, the Suns have allowed almost 112 points per game.

In the first quarters of the last five games, the Suns allowed 31.4 points on average, a statistic players seemed acutely aware of after allowing the Hawks 37 in the first frame Sunday.

Suns 129, Hawks 120

"We do need to take a step back and kind of look and see what we’re doing wrong, especially in the first quarter," Suns guard Gerald Green said. "We’re giving up 30 points in the first quarter, which is too much. We’ve just got to do a better job starting and finishing games."

To the Suns’ credit, they did match the early pace Atlanta (26-32) set. It made for plenty of scoring on both ends, with the Suns tallying 79 points before halftime, the most in a half by any team this season.

Green led the offensive outburst with 23 first-half points, including five 3-pointers. He led all scorers with 33 points despite spending much of the second half on the bench. Goran Dragic followed up Friday’s 40-point performance with 19 points while Marcus and Markieff Morris combined for 39 points.

The Suns also shot a season high 55 percent from the field, 62.5 percent from three-point range and 86.7 percent from the free throw line — percentages not reached in the same game since March 23, 1989, a game Hornacek started for the Suns.

Clearly, the offense had its best night of the season, at least statistically. But that’s exactly the kind of night that can disguise underlying defensive issues.

What are the issues? Breakdowns, lacking help defense and uncontested shots, for starters.

"We’re (giving up) too many open shots," Dragic said. "Those shots nobody is contesting, that’s an easy shot. We just have to do a better job contesting shots and staying in front of guys."

The Hawks shot 52.4 percent, a figure nearly identical to the one the Rockets posted in a win here a week ago, leading Hornacek to say a home team that allows its opponent to shoot better than 50 percent probably doesn’t deserve to win.

The Hawks’ speed and the pace they set Sunday only exacerbated the defensive problem. With things moving so fast, the Suns — and the Hawks, really — had only minimal time to set their defense and no time to correct issues.

"I think both of our teams are hard to guard in terms of how we play — kicking it up and quick shots and the way both teams have guards that can really penetrate," Hornacek said. "That breaks down defense when teams are good at passing the ball and shooting the ball.

"Sometimes it might like there was zero defense out there, but I’m sure the guys were trying."

The adjustments will have to come in practice, and they’ll have to take hold early in games. As much damage as the Suns can do with their offense and though they might be able to win more offensive shootouts than they lose, there’s clear belief in the locker room it’s not a sustainable model.

"We have to improve our defense, especially now when we’re playing against the Clippers and the Thunder and those guys," Dragic said. "If you’re not going to be solid they’re going to run over us."

Before the game, Hornacek said guard Eric Bledsoe participated in 5-on-5 practice Saturday for the first time since having arthroscopic knee surgery. Hornacek said he "couldn’t guess when" Bledsoe will be back but went ahead and did so, suggesting it could be in a week of two. … Newly acquired big man Shavlik Randolph made his Suns debut at the end of the first quarter. He finished with two points and two rebounds in 10 minutes. … Leandro Barbosa entered in the third quarter, getting his first action since spraining his toe Feb. 19. He finished with seven points in 13 minutes.

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