Suns doomed by sloppy third quarter in loss to Grizzlies

PHOENIX — We could focus on philosophy — how the irresistible, fast-breaking force was resisted by the immovable objections of a grind-based basketball system.

Or we could define the Suns’ 102-91 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night as an issue of individual rhythm. With so many like-minded and similarly-talented employees in the Phoenix fold, finding time for everyone to reach a reasonable flow is tricky.

Goran Dragic, for example, played less than 26 minutes, scored six points and ran his season-opening, consecutive-3-pointers-misssed streak to 10.

But it’s probably more superficially efficient to revisit a third quarter that began with the home team ahead by six and — thanks to end-to-end erosion coerced by eight turnovers — ended with Memphis up by 5.

"Turnovers killed us," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said when inquiries regarding the 30-19 third-quarter deficit began. "Games aren’t always won and lost at the end of the game. I thought the game was lost in the third quarter."

Within the big-picture explanation of sloppy ball-handling and stagnant overall execution, there is its catalyst … selfishness.

"The thought was, ‘How can I score?’" Hornacek said in reference to the approach by his collection of talented playmakers, "instead of, ‘How can I help a teammate score?’

"If you move the ball, you’re going to get open looks."

Grizzlies 102, Suns 91

That variable was presented by Hornacek during his pre-game media session as a reason why the Suns have been inconsistent on offense.  

The game ended with the Suns sitting at 3-2 and the Grizzlies lumbering off at 5-0. Before tip-off, the teams’ commitment to disparate tempos made this seem like a compelling matchup.

"It’s probably going to be a battle of wills … who can get their style going," said Hornacek, whose team was 0-4 against Memphis last season.

But Hornacek also pointed out that forcing a fast pace — especially with the Suns playing for the second night in a row — isn’t always appropriate.

"We have to find a balance," he said. "As coaches, we talked about that the other night. We want to be that fast-break team because that’s where our strength is with our guys.

"However, we’re starting to wonder if in back-to-back games, that starts to hurt us a bit — that we’re running so much and maybe our guys are tired. We want to find that balance in games we have back-to-backs we still want to push it, but I might not be harping on the guys if we’re in those situations."

So, with 7-foot Marc Gasol anchoring the middle of a nasty Memphis defense and lurking as the passing hub of a patient offense, Hornacek approached this showdown prepared to do whatever was necessary to prevail.

"We’re going to try to play our game first and see what happens," he said.

Well, the Suns weren’t exactly rushing the ball in the forecourt after the Grizzlies scored, but they did run and shoot well enough to have a 52-46 advantage at intermission. Eric Bledsoe (14 of his team-high 23 points) had made all six of his field-goal attempts by then, and Markieff Morris — attacking the bankrupt lateral defensive agility of Memphis bruiser Zach Randolph early in the opening quarter — was 5 for 5.

Bledsoe finished the game with nine successful shots in 12 attempts, but also ticked the stat sheet for nine of Phoenix’s 21 turnovers.

"I don’t think we did a good job of executing," Bledsoe said. "They did a great job of packing the paint."

Some of Phoenix’s dribble-happy miscues occurred during reckless or careless ventures into a lane that was choked off by the Grizzlies’ upgrade in pick-and-roll defense.

"In the first half, we came in here and watched film," Grizzlies guard Courtney Lee said, "and Coach told us we had to pick up our defensive pressure, especially the guards on the pick-and-roll, because they were getting straight-line drives in the paint."

With the pace already in the Grizzlies’ favor — Phoenix made 55.9 percent of its first-half shots, but managed a relatively-pedestrian 52 points — this turnover-related, third-quarter largesse enabled Memphis to seize control.

"We told them at halftime they’re a very good defensive team," Hornacek said. "So you knew they were going to come out focused defensively, and we got careless with the ball, had a lot of turnovers and they start the third quarter with a bunch of layups."

Having tried to outrun Memphis, the Suns tried to go bigger. They went back to small. And they tried beyond small. But Memphis was too locked in.

"Their confidence was sky high at that point," Hornacek said. "They didn’t need the extra confidence; they are a great team."

The Phoenix coach said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the Grizzlies still standing when the smoke clears at the end of the Western Conference finals.

For now, the Suns are attempting to figure out how to fuel their up-tempo fire and become part of the postseason smoke.

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