After turning things around late in 2014, the Phoenix Suns ended the year with two tough road losses. They have an excellent chance to start 2015 on a positive note.
The Suns will face the NBA’s worst team – one which they throttled six weeks ago – and the Philadelphia 76ers enter Friday night winding down a lengthy road trip which has turned ugly.
It was an up-and-down December for Phoenix (18-16), beginning with back-to-back wins before losing six in a row. A six-game winning streak followed, but that ended Tuesday with a 110-106 defeat in New Orleans. One night later, the Suns had a chance to spoil Kevin Durant’s return from injury but lost 137-134 in overtime at Oklahoma City as the reigning MVP had 44 points.
Phoenix veteran P.J. Tucker wasn’t discouraged.
"I love how we’re playing," he said. "I think we will be fine. Coming to the New Year with Philly, I think we’ll come out and be aggressive."
Coach Jeff Hornacek wants to see that on the glass. The Suns were outrebounded by 11 in each of the two losses, falling to 0-8 when the opposition has a double-digit advantage. They averaged a plus-2.0 rebounding edge during the preceding six-game win streak.
"We’re gonna be small sometimes. We gotta get rebounds," Hornacek said after Wednesday’s loss. "I thought we didn’t go aggressively for some of the boards. To win games, you gotta kinda go get some of ’em sometimes."
His team had one of its biggest rebounding advantages (46-39) in Philadelphia on Nov. 21, and the Suns rolled to a 122-96 victory. The game featured 76ers big man Nerlens Noel knocking Phoenix’s Eric Bledsoe on his back 30 seconds into the game. Though Noel denied it was intentional, Bledsoe said he had been warned by an unnamed Sixer about a potential response to him saying the 76ers (4-26) would lose to top-ranked Kentucky in a seven-game series.
"Word got back to me," he said. "You could tell (it was intentional). Look at the tape."
Though Bledsoe also said he does "respect those guys" and his team could have lost, the Suns are big favorites Friday against a Philadelphia team which has been outmatched since heading west on its seven-game trip.
The trek began with some promise, winning in Orlando and Miami, before the 76ers flew across the country and suffered blowout losses to Portland, Utah and Golden State. The defeats were by an average of 26.0 points and the worst was their last one, 126-86 to the Warriors on Tuesday.
"I think you have to stay grounded and be reminded that it’s all about the process," coach Brett Brown said. "It’s hard to say that when you just lost the way that we just did, I get that. But there are some things you walk away and you can learn from."
One of those things is taking better care of the basketball. The Sixers tied a season high with 28 turnovers Tuesday and have committed at least 17 in 13 straight games. They lead the league with 19.2 per game.
Michael Carter-Williams averages an NBA-worst 4.7 turnovers and has shot 3 for 27 in the past two games for the Sixers, whose trip ends Saturday against the Clippers.
Goran Dragic has averaged 21.6 points in the past five games and Bledsoe has added 21.1 per game over the last seven, but the third member of Phoenix’s high-scoring point guard trio has stumbled. Isaiah Thomas totaled 11 points on 3-of-15 shooting in the two losses to close 2014 after averaging 16.5 during the six-game win streak.
Thomas, though, has averaged 23.0 points in his last five matchups with Philadelphia.