More than Magic to Suns' seventh straight loss

December 9, 2012

PHOENIX -- It would be easy (not to mention predictable and reckless) to take a few point-blank shots at the coach.

How about a couple of hackneyed zingers aimed at the front office or the team owner? Hey, not a problem.

But as the Phoenix Suns’ seventh consecutive loss was being executed to imperfection on Sunday night, the clarity of their predicament became even more obvious. Unless this collection of players begins to play for each other, any hypothetical down-the-stretch rally this season could be moot.

“It’s not anything complicated,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said after a 98-90 loss to the Orlando Magic.

Amen to that.

In a showdown between low-profile rosters, the Magic (8-12) survived a third-quarter funk and handed first-year coach Jacque Vaughn – the youngest coach in the league – a third win in the final game of the team’s five-game West Coast tour.

Vaughn continues to incorporate the same corner-series offense Gentry installed during the Suns' training camp. But Orlando’s execution of this and other schemes in its repertoire was (excepting the first 10 minutes of the third quarter) superior to what was accomplished by the home team.

The Magic’s defensive rotations weren’t pristine, but they were crisper and more committed than those of the Suns, who allowed Orlando to shoot 52 percent from the field.

Does this strongly suggest that Vaughn is (or will be) the superior coach?

Nope. Sure, it could be proven over time, but the Suns didn’t fall to 7-15 (one game worse than after the first 22 games last season) because the coaches lack the basketball intelligence to teach the system.

As they did while knocking off the Suns in Orlando, the Magic players simply put on their (cough) big-boy pants before trusting the system to work fairly well when hard cuts, solid screens and crisp passes are involved.

Orlando is 29th among NBA teams in offensive efficiency, mind you, so there’s still a lot of work to be done by the rookie coach and his crew. But the Magic – buying in on the help-the-helper mandate – are eighth in defensive efficiency.

They believe that making a play for a teammate could lead to collective success -- including return opportunities for themselves.

It also should be pointed out that despite lacking star power (very much like the situation here), the Orlando roster offers more balance. In addition to having multiple shooters, ballhandlers and post options in an ordinary cast, the Magic have veteran leaders with a great deal of big-game experience.

So, Sunday’s defeat should fall in the lap of the personnel guys and the guy who hired ’em, right? Well, some questionable maneuvers seem to be moving the needle with much more force than the good decisions, but much of this 7-15 start is not on the front office, either.

“We’re just not making the plays we need to make to win ballgames,” Gentry said. “We gotta rebound better. We gotta defend better. We gotta take care of the damn ball.”

For the record, the Suns were outrebounded (a crazy 44-29) but came out plus-six in turnovers because Orlando burped up eight turnovers in the third quarter and 18 overall.

“We gotta get the ball movin’,” Gentry said. “When we get three or more passes before a shot, we shoot in the mid-50s (percent). We will force the ball to go from side to side.”

By the way, Gentry refused to credit this particular setback on the absence of stunt man P.J. Tucker (bum knee) and point guard Goran Dragic (flu).

“We would never use that as an excuse,” he said. “We have no excuses.”

Even when The Dragon isn’t draggin’, the Suns’ court balance, player movement and ball movement have been sluggish. And on the rare occasions when the defensive effort is reasonable, the focus on locating shooters has been abysmal.

“It’s a real frustrating loss,” Gentry said. “You know, we’re playing spot basketball. We play good for two minutes, then we’re bad for seven, then we’re good for five and we’re bad for three. You just can’t have any consistency, and you just can’t win any basketball games in this league when you play that way.”

OK, so it’s true that finding proper combinations can be dicey when most players on the roster are near the same level of talent. And when that talent isn’t exceptional, a roller-coaster of inconsistency creates lineup juggling.

It’s easier when players have at least a nodding acquaintance with their limitations and accept prescribed roles.

But the marketing team’s "All for Orange" sales pitch – leaning on the premise that a team without stars must pull together – is rooted in the “all for one and one for all” philosophy.

And an interpretation of playing hard or tough is diluted when a group of pretty decent players fail to play for each other.