“I think we’re here now.”
Suns forward Grant Hill uttered those words after Phoenix knocked off the Hawks to finish a 9-3 stretch since acquiring Jason Richardson a week ago Tuesday.
Four losses in five games later and the Suns are moving further and further behind the pack in the West, lucky to stay in a playoff spot if the season ended today only because of the struggles of Dallas after their 114-109 loss in New York.
In that stretch the Suns have lost to two teams they should have beaten (Minnesota, Knicks) and suffered an embarrassing blowout (Boston) after losing a hard-fought overtime game in Denver.
And nobody has any clue just where the Suns are right now.
“It’s strange because before this five-game stretch I was feeling pretty good about our team and thought we had turned the corner,” Steve Nash told Suns.com. “But lately it seems we’ve taken two steps back. It’s sure frustrating, and I don’t have all the answers right now.”
Before this stretch, the Suns’ only losses in 12 games since acquiring J-Rich came on two buzzer-beaters and a game lost in the final minute. The Suns did appear to be finding that balance between being a running team and a halfcourt team with Shaq.
Really only the Boston game was a disaster, as they coulda, woulda, shoulda won the other three in this stretch and had many opportunities to do so but failed to come through.
Before this tough loss, the whiteboard in the Suns’ locker room included the words, “The Knicks are no match for our bigs.”
That couldn’t have been more accurate in the first half when Shaq punished David Lee and Co with 18 and seven and Amare added 14.
But Shaq only went for three more points and four boards in the second half and Amare added just six second-half points, as a swarming Knicks defense did its best to negate the Suns’ size advantage down low.
Amare came out firing with 10 points in a great first quarter that saw Phoenix leading by 13 just seven minutes in, but he ended up missing 11 of his 17 shots, many that just rimmed out. It wasn’t exactly the statement game I was expecting after his Boston dud.
The Suns added another reason to the list of why they usually lose games by enduring a poor free-throw shooting performance, hitting just 61.1 percent of their 36 foul shots. If they would have hit their season average of 76 percent with just five or six more makes, this is a completely different game.
The bench once again coughed up a nice lead the starters built up in the first half. Nash left with three minutes remaining in the first half and the Suns leading by 10 and returned six minutes of game time later with that lead down to one.
Leandro Barbosa and Matt Barnes recorded plus-minuses of minus 20, and Lou Amundson wasn’t far behind at minus 17. In all, Phoenix’s bench was outscored 57-18.
To some extent you could also blame this loss on the ball just not bouncing the right way, as with just over a minute left and the Suns trailing by six Nash and Jason Richardson both missed wide open threes I would expect both of them to knock down a minute after Chris Duhon of all people hit a huge three in the corner to expand a four-point lead to seven.
“We were a pretty solid force in the first quarter and from that point on we really didn’t win another quarter,” head coach Terry Porter told Suns.com. “Down the stretch when we needed a stop we couldn’t get one. We had opportunities, Steve had a wide-open three and we had quite a few shots in the paint that didn’t go down.”
Gearing up for his return to Charlotte on Friday, Richardson played his best game as a Sun with 27 points, nine boards and three steals while hitting 11-for-21 shots.
Nash also bested his season-high assist total from Sunday with 19 more on Wednesday night, as he picked apart Mike D’Antoni’s defense the way you would expect him to. Too bad D’Antoni also exploited the Nash-Shaq pick-and-roll defense he knows so well.
The way Nash is running this offense – and getting six rebounds to boot, two more than Amare – the way Shaq looks rejuvenated, the way J-Rich is slashing to the hoop and dunking on people, the way Hill is hitting midrange jumpers and with the way we know Amare can play, the Suns really aren’t that far off.
Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself.