Suns appear headed for historical depths

PHOENIX — Now that they’ve managed to lose 13 times in only 20 games, the Phoenix Suns are making an aggressive slide into the team picture of bitter franchise history.
The 2003-04 Suns opened that campaign at 8-12, escorting coach Frank Johnson to within one more loss of the door and assistant Mike D’Antoni into the catbird seat. It also inspired the rehiring of Steve Nash before the next season began. How’s that for a silver lining? By the way, Nash’s first Phoenix work tour began as a rookie in 1996 and was lowlighted by an 0-13 beginning that included a midstream coaching shift from Cotton Fitzsimmons to Danny Ainge.
Kevin Johnson wasn’t around for the first few games of that staggered start, but the Suns — who had parted with Charles Barkley in the offseason — decided even more was needed after KJ returned. In separate deals with the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix waved bye-bye to five players (Sam Cassell, Michael Finley, A.C. Green, Robert Horry and Joe Kleine) and welcomed six new Suns (Tony Dumas, Loren Meyer, Cedric Ceballos, Rumeal Robinson and some other guy).
The other guy was Jason Kidd, who eventually found his way back to Dallas. But Kidd wasn’t in uniform Monday night when the defending-champion Mavericks knocked off the Suns 122-99 in front of 13,132 at US Airways Center.
Nash and his thigh bruise didn’t participate either, which — for an offense already grinding down the NBA road — was an overkill of misery that rivaled removing the engine from a car with no tires.
Anyway, for good news regarding Suns history, the ’96-’97 squad rallied to finish 40-42 and qualify for the playoffs. The co-starring bad news? Well, the Suns don’t exactly have the assets required to make enough deals that could lead to a similar uprising (maybe that’s more good news for Phoenix followers rooting for a really high draft pick).
With contusion interrupting cohesion — or at least the goal of achieving it — Nash continues to be the subject of those pesky, rumored deals that would include another change of scenery. But while he continues pledging allegiance to the Suns as long as they want him and the Suns pledging the same thing, basketball observers in this town must feel like hamsters in a wheel.
Meanwhile, back on the court, Nash, his teammates and Suns coaches simply are groping for positive consistency on both ends of the floor.
After scoring 71 points during last Friday’s loss in Portland and 86 in Saturday’s home triumph over Memphis, the Suns shot a relatively scalding 48.6 percent from the field in a 48-point first half against the Mavs. Unfortunately, a defense that’s been crusty on some occasions this season was riddled for 66 points on 57-percent Dallas marksmanship.
“Obviously, we ran into a team that shot the heck out of the ball, and they caught us in rotation because of Dirk,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said in reference to Mr. Nowitzki and his Dallas cronies, who combined to finish the evening at 55 percent. “Their shooters shot the ball extremely well tonight.”
The Suns’ defensive game plan was to assist Grant Hill in dealing with Nowitzki through the use of double teams. That’s always risky against any NBA team, but Phoenix was hoping the Mavericks — who checked in as the league’s 23rd-best team from 3-point range — would come out clanking.
“You’ve got to play the odds when when you’re playing Dirk,” Gentry said.
For the record, Dirk scored 10 points and made 4 of his 10 shots.
“It’s what he opens up for other guys,” Gentry said.
A different version of that duty usually is supplied for the Suns by Nash, who couldn’t rally after taking a Marc Gasol knee to the thigh while defending Mike Conley on the last play of Saturday’s victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.
“It’s not something you can just bounce back from,” Gentry said of Nash’s thigh bruise. “If anyone can do it, he can.”
The next scheduled bounceback opportunities are Wednesday in New Orleans against the struggling Hornets and Friday in a meeting with the red-hot Houston Rockets. The Suns return home Saturday to take on the extremely beatable Charlotte Bobcats.
If Nash is able to move and get in a reasonable groove, Phoenix can stay ahead of the pace set by the ’03-’04 juggernaut, which didn’t record its ninth win until game No. 25.
I probably shouldn’t mention that the point-guard vacancy Nash filled in the summer of ’04 was created by trading Stephon Marbury shortly after the previous season’s debacle began.
We wouldn’t want NBA watchdogs to get any more ideas.