CLEVELAND — Twenty nine.
That was a telling number here Wednesday night for the high-octane Suns, the team that leads the NBA in scoring. They routinely score 29 points in the first quarter, and Steve Nash can almost reach that total himself.
So when Nash and his teammates walked off The Q floor at halftime with the scoreboard showing 29 next to their name, they looked as lifeless as road-kill along Interstate 5.
If coach Alvin Gentry sought a spark, for somebody to ignite his Suns after their pathetic performance Tuesday night in a 126-99 beatdown to the Knicks – yes, to the 4-14 Knicks — Gentry never found that somebody.
Almost to a man, his Suns were as listless against LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal and the Cavaliers as they were against the Knicks. And the results reflected it: 107-90 loss.
“We got our butts whopped tonight,” said Grant Hill, sitting at his locker stall, his knees wrapped in ice bags. “We got our butts whopped last night.”
A deconstruction of the first half proved Hill’s point. For in every meaningful category, the Suns trailed the Cavs. Take assists, as an example. The Suns had seven; the Cavs, 19.
In rebounds, the Suns had 20; the Cavs, 31. And in turnovers, the Suns had 11; the Cavs, five.
Oh, and here’s one more un-Sun-like number on the first-half stats sheet to look at: 0. That’s the offensive production they got from Jason Richardson. Scratch the dozen points belonging to Nash, and the Suns looked as pitiful on offense, collectively, as the 0-for-the-season Nets.
From the start, the Suns seemed to be spectators, standing around as if trying to admire what LeBron, Shaq & Co. did.
“It was fun to watch, especially that first half, with the way we moved the ball and bodies, the way we made basket cuts,” Cavs coach Mike Brown said. “When we do that on the offensive end of the floor, we put up a lot of points.”
Brown had no trouble getting Gentry to concur.
“They got off to a great start in the first quarter,” Gentry said. “I mean, we got nothing going at all in the first quarter, and it was an uphill battle from there.”
If the Suns hoped to make Shaq regret leaving Phoenix, to show their incredible hulk of an ex-teammate what he had left behind in the Arizona desert, they didn’t succeed. For what he saw in the Suns made him regret nothing.
So decisive was this dismantling — a destruction of the nuclear variety — the Suns return home Saturday with some soul-searching to do. The grind of back-to-back games on the road might provide Gentry an explanation, but his Suns played so horribly in both losses that an explanation of this sort seems hollow.
“We’re a good basketball team,” he said. “We’re just struggling right now. It’s things we’ve got to get corrected, but it’s nothing we can’t do.”
One concern Gentry highlighted was the Suns’ defense, which leaked points in both road losses.
“We were giving up way too many middle drives,” he said. “Everyone’s getting into the teeth of our defense. That causes problems. It gives them too many options.
“It’s not a major thing; it’s a blip on the radar.”
Look deeply into that blip: Take the 57 points the Suns allowed in the game-deciding first half. The total wouldn’t be overly worrisome for Gentry had the Suns been scoring at their usual pace. They are a team that can score points — and score a lot of ‘em quickly; they’ve proved as much over the seasons.
But when they can’t score and when the best they can do on defense is to hold an opponent to a shooting percentage of 51.9 percent, the Suns can’t win.
OK, they made mini-runs late in the second half, performing more like a team with 14 wins than a team with 14 losses. But theirs would be a hard road to a victory. They had a 28-point pothole to climb out but cut it to 97-85 with about 2:03 left in the game.
And what happened next for the Suns?
Their defense betrayed them again. Playing with Nash on the bench, the Suns left Cavs guard Mo Williams loose for an uncontested three-pointer. Williams drilled it. His shot finished off whatever possibilities lingered for the Suns to rally.
“I thought in the second half we came out and played hard,” Gentry said. “But we dug such a hole that we were never really ever a threat. We got some work to do.”
Justice B. Hill runs the general sports blog Justice is Served as well as the web site Tsar Justice. He’s a former Cleveland Indians beat writer for MLB.com who also ran the internship program for MLB’s official site.