Suns fall by failing on ‘D’
After threatening to gun their way to within reasonable range of the Western Conference’s sixth seed, the Suns finished Friday night in ninth place.
At this point in the season, every misstep is treacherous
In this circumstance, a lack of defensive focus — both in tactics and execution — conspired to deliver a 112-104 loss to the Spurs in San Antonio.
Despite the absence of Goran Dragic (ankle), things looked pretty ducky in the opening stages of this crucial showdown with the best team (by record) in the NBA.
The Spurs, attempting to lock up the top seed playing without Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, missed opening shots, while Suns guards Eric Bledsoe and Gerald Green pushed Phoenix to a 21-point, first-quarter advantage.
In the first of back-to-back dates in Texas — Saturday’s shift is an even bigger event against the Mavericks in Dallas — there were moments when the Suns seemed to be on the cusp of a minutes-saving rout.
They made 70 percent of their field goal attempts in the first and were hustling their way that much closer to a playoff ticket.
When the night ended, Bledsoe had tied his career high with 30 points and was within one assist of his first career triple-double. To the bad, he was one assist and three turnovers from his first career quadruple-double.
Green finished with 17, but only had seven in the second half. Markieff Morris, who typically destroys San Antonio in the mid-post, had 20 off the bench.
So, how did the Suns fail to maintain the seventh seed?
Well, their strategy of ball-screen defense enabled Spurs guard Danny Green (33 points) to shake free for a couple momentum-shaking 3-pointers, turning a potential runaway into another grim competition.
In theory, the Suns’ passive approach to defending screen-roll was sort of understandable. As the league’s most accurate (40 percent) team from behind the arc, the Spurs typically use ball screens to force the screen defender to vigorously attack the dribbler, leading to dives to the rim, followed by help-and-rotation issues for the defense.
And with deadly shooters hiding in the corners, any commitment to attacking ball screens often leads to late close-outs against these snipers.
Unfortunately for the Suns’ playoff bid, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has seen and done everything countless times before. So, instead of limiting pick-and-roll situations with Tony Parker and his limited shooting range as ballhandler, he put the ball in the hands of Danny Green.
With Suns post players instructed to hang back and contain instead of attack the ballhandler — while teammates guarding the ball attempted to slide under the pick — the Spurs’ Green was free to come off the screen and fire.
Despite having played Thursday night (and helping the Suns with a triumph over Dallas), San Antonio was able to ride his hot hand, withstand the initial barrage from the visitors and settle into an offensive rhythm.
Although the Suns — who led 37-24 after the opening quarter – rescued the latter stages of the second quarter to lead by 13 at intermission, the Spurs put a 37-19 lesson on Phoenix in the third.
With the Suns on their heels and still ineffective defending pick-and-roll, Parker — who missed the two previous games with a bad back — scored 14 of his 18 points in the third.
Even when the Suns seemed intent on providing more resistance to the dribbler in these situations, the players required to help against Parker took improper angles, allowing on the of the league’s best penetrators to carve up the Phoenix defense.
The Suns, who hit San Antonio for 62 points in the opening half, managed 42 in the second half because they allowed the Spurs to dictate the pace.
Instead of keeping a hot tempo and creating clean looks before the Spurs could load their defense, the Suns walked the ball into the forecourt too often and found themselves in one-on-one predicaments with the shot clock on life support.
While they were falling in Texas, the Memphis Grizzlies were busy wiping out the Philadelphia 76ers. Checking in at 47-32, they share the same record with the Suns, but own the tire-breaker.
Between now and Monday’s showdown at U.S. Airways Center, the Grizzlies will play the Los Angeles Lakers and the Suns will play the Mavericks.
To put their playoff hopes back in their own hands, a Suns’ triumph in Dallas is almost mandatory.