PHOENIX — When I used to cover baseball, I always used to dread walking into a losing locker room because it felt like a morgue, with only a player or two staying around to speak with the media in hushed tones and the rest of the clubhouse eerily silent.
That’s not a feeling I’ve experienced very often covering Suns home games, as I was first credentialed after the All-Star break when Alvin Gentry took over the head coaching position, and since then the Suns racked up an elite 24-3 record at home entering tonight.
However, the Suns’ locker room featured that same creepy quiet that symbolizes losing after tonight’s 109-91 loss to Cleveland, a loss that snapped Phoenix’s 19-game home winning streak dating back to March 12 when maybe not so coincidentally LeBron and the Cavs were the guests as well.
The Suns have beaten all teams strong and weak in the 285 days since that loss, remaining undefeated at home longer than any other NBA team this year, as I wrote in Monday’s Daily Dime.
The circumstances of the two home losses to Cleveland are rather interesting. When the Suns lost to the Cavs last March, their last loss at home had come two days earlier instead of 285 days earlier. It marked the tail end of a six-game losing streak that for all intents and purpose knocked Phoenix out of the playoff race despite a furious late charge.
This time around the Suns remained in fourth place in the West despite the loss and were able to reflect on the end of a monumental streak rather than the end of their season.
“We’ve come out determined at home for the most part, and that’s what it takes to get your fans behind you and put the other team under pressure,” Steve Nash said. “Tonight we didn’t do that, so it’s a good lesson for us to realize why we did have the streak, a streak that lasted a month and a half (this season). It was good, we did a good job there, and to have this kind of record at home is something we should be proud of and build on.”
Added Gentry, “We’ll snap back. This is a good group of guys, and we never thought we’d go 41-0 at home anyway.”
What’s even more impressive and surprising than the Cavs ending the Suns’ streak — I mean, we knew it was ending soon, the only question was if it would be the Cavs, Lakers or Celtics – is that the Cavs held the Suns below the century mark in their building for the first time in 37 games, ending the longest active streak since the Warriors did so in 40 straight home games from Dec. 2007-Dec. 2008.
It didn’t look like either record would be broken when the Suns set the pace during a blistering first quarter, after which they led 30-29. But they scored just 38 points in the second half altogether, including a 5:22 scoreless period of the fourth in which Cleveland stretched a six-point lead to 21.
“We just stopped scoring it seemed like,” Nash said. “I don’t know exactly why, it happened so fast. I think we turned the ball over a couple times, I think we had a few offensive fouls. They were making shots at the other end. I think it led to us pressing a little bit. I think we rushed a few and missed, and before you knew it we went a long stretch without scoring.”
Added Gentry, “I don’t know if we lost the rhythm of the game or if they took it away from us, but somewhere along the line we’ve got to have more than 38 points the second half. That’s not who we are.”
The Cavs stymied the Suns’ offense by using a three-guard lineup with LeBron James at the four that allowed them to switch all screens.
More than anything, turnovers proved to be fatal to the Suns, as 19 Phoenix turnovers led to 30 Cleveland points, and Nash estimated the Suns gave the Cavs another 20 points because of breakdowns (and that LeBron guy didn’t even need breakdowns to carve up the Suns).
“We can’t do that, and it’s the first thing I said to the guys,” Gentry said. “We talked about the turnovers. We had said we can’t turn the ball over. That got us in trouble early in the game against them up there, and it got us in trouble here.
“You can’t give up 30 points. The one thing about that team is with LeBron and all the shooters, if you turn the ball over against them you’re probably going to pay. It’s so hard to get back and so hard to defend turnovers.
“It puts too much pressure on you to score every time down the court when you give up 30 points in your turnovers. There’s no way that you can counter that.”
Nash attributed many of the turnovers to the Suns being careless and indecisive.
“We lacked a little bit of confidence at times,” Nash said. “For whatever reason we just weren’t at our best tonight. I thought they wanted it bad.”
Cleveland is a tough matchup for the Suns, as Phoenix only put up 29 points in the first half in Ohio, but the Suns once again started strong with their seventh 30-point first quarter in 11 home games.
Things unraveled from there, as Cleveland defended the Suns’ three-point shot — Phoenix hit a season-low-tying four long balls in 19 attempts (21.1 percent), including none in the game’s final 33:14 — and got Amare Stoudemire and Channing Frye in foul trouble.
“The bottom line is we didn’t get the job done, and they came out and did what they had to do on both ends of the court and played well,” Grant Hill said. “We can’t hang our heads. We should be frustrated and want to come out and play better. I think we are better.
“Tonight was just one of those nights.”
The return of the Shaqtus
The Big Witness was a Big No Show. His pregame introduction included a mix of weak cheers and boos and then he went out and scored just three points in 19 minutes, while allowing Amare to go off during a 10-point first quarter.
Shaq had a foul-troubled Frye on him much of the game, a guy who must be about 100 pounds lighter than him, yet only once did he made a decisive Shaq move for a hoop.
Shaq’s return was much like Shaq’s stay in the Valley of the Suns: lots of hype but ultimately nothing substantial.
Not a single question was asked of him in the Suns’ locker room that I heard, and J.A. Adande wondered when Shaq not being the story is still a story in the Daily Dime’s lead story.
Lou Amundson made a bigger impact on this game than the artist formerly known as the Shaqtus, and at this point considering style and production, the Suns should be lucky to have even gotten a wad of cash in exchange for the future Hall of Famer.
Amare Stoudemire drew another technical for throwing his arms up in disagreement over a call. He’s got to get it drilled into his head that he will get T’ed up every time he makes such a move, fair or unfair. It sure seems like the refs are programed to give Amare a T the second he flails his arms in disagreement.
LeBron James, on the other hand, vehemently disagreed with an official in a similar manner and got nary a whistle on a few different occasions. One time he even seemed to sway an official’s opinion.
Even Steve Nash got off easy by Amare’s T-receiving standards when he made a scene after getting bodied by Shaq on an and one that wasn’t whistled as a foul.
I just wonder why some stars get leeway and Amare is T’ed up the second he raises his arms in frustration.