Suns’ defense, intensity fade in loss to Mavs

PHOENIX – Thanks to a calamitous fourth quarter that resembled many of those from the previous coaching regime, fans of the Phoenix Suns can postpone the Lindsey-sanity campaign.

On a Friday night that could have ended with the Suns winning for the fourth time in Lindsey Hunter’s first six games as interim coach, the Dallas Mavericks’ 35-24 fourth-quarter salvo led to a 109-99 loss for the Suns at US Airways Center.

“We’re still young in this process, and you kind of expect things like this to happen,” said Hunter, whose team fell in its first game since Wednesday’s rousing come-from-behind victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.

The process Hunter has been guiding the Suns through has been the implementation of a defense-first philosophy.

Unfortunately, a 31-point opening quarter against the Mavs (who were working for the second consecutive night) seemed to twist the Suns’ priorities.

“We came out scoring at will,” Hunter said. “When you score early, you tend to think that’s how you win.”

To his point, Dallas also came out scoring early, too, countering Phoenix’s first-quarter eruption with 29 points. It should be noted that – in addition to going back-to-back – the Mavs were playing without star Dirk Nowitzki (right adductor strain) and center Chris Kaman (concussion).

But instead of buckling, Dallas came up with some timely offensive rebounds leading to big shots that created separation in the final quarter.

“A lot of times, it was disciplinary things that we are trying to instill,” Hunter said of his team’s defensive breakdowns. “Certain rotations, certain things that we just weren’t supposed to do that we did.”

The Suns are supposed to be focused on execution of a lane-crowding defensive concept that should resemble what the NBA has seen in recent years from the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics. Many of the concepts are derivatives of the Pack-line defense popularized by former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett.

“We’re trying to protect the paint a lot more,” Suns center Marcin Gortat said. “We’re trying to build a wall around the basket, and we’re pre-rotating.”

With weakside defenders closer to the lane (and farther off shooters than before) and arriving earlier, ball pressure on would-be passers and rapid close-outs become even more important to prevent clean looks after skip passes.

Before Hunter took over, the Suns were 29th among NBA teams in 3-point percentage allowed despite attempting to tag shooters on the weak side. This made it difficult to give help and clog driving lanes, leading to one of the worst by-the-numbers efforts in paint points allowed, as well. Instead of picking one poison, the Suns were downing two.

Before Friday’s loss, the Suns – who were allowing opponents to shoot 46 percent from the field and 38 percent from 3-point range – had the same overall percentage allowed in five games under Hunter but had trimmed the behind-the-arc success rate to 34 percent.

So, even with an emphasis on protecting the rim, the Suns had begun to guard the line with more gusto.

But complicating their process a bit in Friday loss to the Mavericks, Suns stopper P.J. Tucker was assigned to spend most of his shift face-guarding shooting guard O.J. Mayo.

This seemed to be provoked by Mayo’s nine-point opening quarter (he was 4 for 6 from the field); with the sticky Tucker having some difficulty tracking Mayo off the bounce — including the nifty split of a blitzed pick-and-roll — keeping the ball out of his hands seemed like a viable strategy.

With Tucker in a face-guarding role, however, the Suns had one fewer player to rotate and help if a teammate was beaten off the dribble. Although it would seem to be a simple 4-on-4 situation, there was more court to cover for fewer defenders, especially with Mayo spacing the floor.

Mayo finished the night with 20 points but missed 12 of 19 shots from the field, including 10 of his last 13. Mavs point guard Darren Collison picked up the slack, though, going 6 for 9 for 19 points. Collison knocked in 2 of 3 from deep, but – with the Suns’ help defenders spread thin – he also did some damage by reaching the lane.

And while face-guarding Mayo seemed to lead to certain trade-offs, the Suns didn’t exactly defend with the same fourth-quarter ferocity demonstrated Wednesday against the Lakers.

“I think our intensity was not the same as last game,” said Suns point guard Goran Dragic (19 points, nine assists, eight rebounds) said. “We were not engaged on defense, and, you know, if you get some stops then you’re not under pressure on offense.”

Speaking of offense, Michael Beasley was far from the Killer Beas who lit up L.A. for 27 points. With five other Suns scoring at least 16 points, Beasley – who missed all but two of his 13 shots – scratched out four.

“I shot the ball great,” Beasley said when it was over. “They just didn’t go in.”

Perhaps those pesky gremlins he referenced a few games ago didn’t leave with the former coaching staff.

Anyway, Hunter now sits at 3-3 in place of Alvin Gentry, with the three wins coming against the L.A. Clippers minus Chris Paul, the Sacramento Kings with pretty much everyone and the Lakers, who were fading before Dwight Howard re-injured his shoulder.

He also has losses to the San Antonio Spurs without Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich as well as the Mavs without Nowitzki.

Saturday’s challenge: the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, where Steph Curry is questionable after another ankle injury. The Suns remain on the road next week for dates in Memphis, New Orleans and Oklahoma City. Their next home game co-stars the Thunder.

“I know what lies ahead of us,” Hunter said. “I know how hard it is.”