Suns work on offense, but defense beats the Pelicans
PHOENIX -- With three days -- and two coveted practice sessions -- separating home games, Suns coach Jeff Hornacek had the rare opportunity to attempt some tactical and rhythmic adjustments.
The focus of these workouts seemed pretty obvious.
"Well, we wanted to continue to do what we were doing in practice," Hornacek said, "moving the ball, trying not to hold it. The biggest thing is trying to get into an area where a guy can throw you the pass ... as the pass is going to that guy, you have to get open so they can just catch it and move it.
"We did a lot of that."
So, when the 10th-seeded Suns -- who survived Sunday's date with the lowly New York Knicks -- came out of the lab for Thursday's showdown co-starring the ninth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans, all of this work on upgrading the offensive flow was evident ... right?
Well, not so much.
"We started the game off pretty well moving the ball," Hornacek said after a 74-72 victory, "and then I think we had a stretch of about 15 minutes we had like three assists. It got to be one-on-one."
With ball movement disintegrated, the Suns' top three guns combined to miss 31 of 39 field-goal attempts. The entire team's success rate was 34.9 percent.
But it was just enough to score two more points than the Pelicans -- who are even more injury-compromised than the Suns. The Phoenix win crowds the Western Conference battle for the eighth seed even more.
For the record, that 74-point Suns salvo equals the franchise's low mark for points in a victory.
"I think it was a throwback to the '30s, wasn't it, when the scores were 50-50?" Hornacek said at the end of what was marketed as 'Throwback Thursday.' "Yeah, it wasn't a pretty game."
At least the Suns (36-33) validated the existence of a coach-exempt concept known as the ugly win. When P.J. Tucker recovered a miss from New Orleans guard Tyreke Evans with 2.6 seconds remaining, Phoenix was sitting pretty enough to have clawed to within 1.5 games of the Pellies and 2.5 within the eighth-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder.
"We were in a dogfight," Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe said. "We need every win. We got to go out there and play. Even if games will be like this the rest of the season, we just got to go out there and play the best we can and continue to play team defense."
For individual aesthetics, the team leader was Brandan Wright, who shined for the second time in back-to-back starts in relief of injured center Alex Len.
Slipping near the rim for lobs and jump hooks, the slender lefty made 8 of 10 shots for his 16 points, claimed eight rebounds and blocked seven Pelicans shots.
"I've been a pretty decent shot-blocker my whole career," Wright said. "It's always good to block seven of them and know the opponent didn't score. I think we just grinded out a win. We didn't shoot the ball well, but we played great defense."
OK, so with Wright protecting the rim, the Suns were able to put suitable pressure on the Pelicans' remaining offensive threats, Evans and Eric Gordon.
In addition to playing without Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson for a while, budding superstar Anthony Davis missed Thursday's game after turning his ankle during the morning shoot-around.
With Bledsoe locked in on Evans, the former Rookie of the Year was limited to nine points (missing 12 of 16 shots), five rebounds and three assists. Gordon was stalked by Tucker and required 16 field-goal attempts (he made six) to scrape together 14 points.
Thanks to activity from Wright on ball screens, these and other Suns' perimeter defenders were able to fight over picks without worrying about the quick Phoenix center recovering to make a play behind them.
"I think there was only once during the game where the roller got behind, and that's part credit to our guards fighting those pick-and-roll ball handlers to fight to get back," Hornacek said.
"But there were times when he (Wright) was challenging the shot and still getting back in there for the rebound. That's activity we love to get from him."
Despite missing 13 of 15 shots from the field, Bledsoe felt pretty salt about his activity in the win.
"I played great defense," he said. "I had 11 rebounds. I helped my teammates on the boards. Steals ... I had a bunch (four) of steals, too. So, if I'm not making shots, I don't worry about it because I do so much to help my team win that I'm going to do whatever."
Also checking the "whatever" boxes were the Morris twins, who shot a combined 6 of 26.
Marcus, who was 1 of 11 shooting, had 13 rebounds and four dimes. Markieff (5 of 15) was 3 of 5 in the fourth quarter and finished with eight rebounds.
"We have those games where we can't score the basketball," Markieff Morris said. "We had our chances to crack them and put it away, but they stayed with us and fought hard."