Needed win slips away as Suns enter gauntlet

Needed win slips away as Suns enter gauntlet

Published Jan. 13, 2012 10:21 p.m. ET

PHOENIX -- Heading into Friday, the Suns knew what was on deck. They're about to spend more than a week on the road playing five playoff contenders, so a home game against the New Jersey Nets seemed the ideal way to bank a win before things got rough.

Then they learned both Steve Nash and Grant Hill would be out for the night with injuries.

Without Nash and Hill, the Suns couldn't overcome the efforts of Deron Williams and the lowly Nets to get a much-needed win before beginning what's likely their toughest stretch this season.

"I don't think anybody has their head down or anything," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said after the game. "Obviously we've got a tough trip coming up, and losing two homes games before we go on that is tough."

It might take a lot to keep those heads up if the grueling road trip that keeps the Suns away from Phoenix until Jan. 24 goes anything like most would expect. With games in San Antonio, Chicago, New York, Boston and Dallas, it's not crazy to think the Suns (4-7) might come home with three times as many losses as they have wins.

Friday's game was the Suns' chance to soften the impending blow, but that task got a whole lot harder without Nash and Hill. Gentry announced before the game that the pair -- two-thirds of the Suns' share of the All-Star ballot -- would sit out as Nash nursed thigh and back injuries and Hill dealt with groin and knee issues.

"Coming in today, we didn’t know Steve and Grant weren't going to play," Suns guard Jared Dudley said. "Those are two of our best players on this team."

The absence of the player who makes the offense work and the best defender might have seemed a taller task against most other teams, but with the 2-9 Nets in town, a win still seemed like a reasonable expectation. And it was, as the Suns were never out of it and only ended up losing 110-103.

But the Nets just weren't having it.

That the offense could break 100 without Nash might have been a product of the opponent, just as the Nets' ability to do the same was due at least in part to Hill's absence. Even with a valiant effort that saw the Suns climb within three points in the final three minutes, it was clear that this team lacks players who can consistently create shots and defend elite opponents beyond their aging veteran duo.

Williams clearly took advantage of Hill's absence, torching the Suns' defense for a season-high 35 points and 14 assists. He also went 6 of 9 from 3-point range.

"During that stretch, I thought that Deron Williams just took over the game," Gentry said. "He's one of the great players in this league, so sometimes that's going to happen."

It's going to happen a whole lot more when your best defender is wearing a suit and sitting on the bench. The only positive spin on the absences of Hill and Nash: their fresher legs for the gauntlet that awaits.

Further masking the depleted nature of a Suns team that started Ronnie Price and Shannon Brown was the long-range shooting, as Phoenix hit eight 3-pointers. That might have been more help had the Nets not hit 15 of their own.

Give the Suns credit here, though: They know there's no time to sulk over back-to-back losses to teams they should have beaten. They're all very aware that the coming road swing could set the tone for the remainder of the season and are accordingly thinking forward.

"You're down a little bit, but it's not like you're out," Dudley said. "Now we've got to go on a road trip and steal some games."

Said Price, taking little solace in his own performance: "This is a good opportunity for us to grow and actually show some type of bounceback on this road trip. I felt like we didn't take care of home court the way we should, and now we've got to go get some wins on someone else's court."

Despite the loss, the Suns had a few positives to take away. Price filled in nicely for Nash, finishing with 16 points to tie a career high; the team limited the Nets' offensive rebounds; and Marcin Gorat had another 20-point, 10-rebound game. As a group, the Suns shot 51.9 percent, and every starter scored in double figures.

All that's nice, but the Suns needed a win most. Now they need Nash and Hill back and must at least tread water on a journey that spans more than 6,000 miles and three time zones. If they can't, they might just find themselves on the brink of a lost season only a quarter of the way through.

"Nobody ever said it was going to be easy," Gentry said. "One thing I do know is we've got character guys in the locker room and we'll continue to play hard."