After three straight losses, it was starting to seem like some changes were in order. Suns’ coach Alvin Gentry must have thought so, as he shook up the starting lineup Monday against the Grizzlies.
Robin Lopez started in place of Channing Frye and Leandro Barbosa started for Jason Richardson. But even with the changes — and no blown leads — the Suns weren’t able to stop the bleeding as their losing streak grew to four games after a 125-118 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Suns haven’t lost four in a row since March 2009 when they lost six straight. Moreover, the Suns’ troubles on TNT continued as they have now lost 18 straight on the network.
The loss was by no means an embarrassment in the way their Jan. 2 loss to the Grizzlies in Phoenix was. The Suns have recently faced a fate just the opposite of Memphis. Since starting a red-hot 14-3, the Suns are 10-15. The Grizzlies, conversely, have gone 21-10 since starting 1-8. Quite a turnaround for a team once put in a category with the league’s bottom feeders.
It seems strange to say, especially with it being the fourth in a row, but the loss to Memphis was a good loss. The Suns didn’t blow any leads, they played tough and they were never out of the game. They even tied the game in the fourth quarter.
And the biggest positive to take away from it all was the play of Robin Lopez. Lopez notched a career-high 19 points to go with seven rebounds in his first start of the season. Beyond the numbers though, Lopez showed that he can be an effective rebounder, score in the paint and provide solid interior defense. The Suns outscored the Grizzlies in the paint 70-52. Lopez even managed to not foul out until the final 11 seconds while playing 29 minutes of action! Whether or not this improved Lopez will get more starts will be an interesting story line to watch.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it until it’s not true anymore: the Suns live and die by the three. Monday’s game marked the third straight game in which the Suns have shot below the 41 percent three-point shooting percentage they held entering the game (the Suns no longer lead the league, by the way. Cleveland’s 41.2 percent does).
Over the last three, the Suns have averaged 28.2 percent shooting from downtown. They went 10-of-29 Monday, including Barbosa’s 2-of-10. Steve Nash made 3-of-6 from deep, two coming on the run in clutch moments, but it wasn’t enough. Nash finished with a team-leading 22 points and 12 assists.
The tide of the game turned for good in the fourth quarter with 7:18 to go. After the Suns made it a three-point game at 99-96, the Grizzlies went on an 8-0 run that included three Suns turnovers and ended on an O.J. Mayo dunk. The Suns made it close again in the final minute, cutting the lead to 121-118 after a Barbosa three-point score, but Marc Gasol’s clutch free throw shooting and a Nash turnover put an end to the game.
Gasol finished with 19 points, one of four Grizzlies in double figures. Mayo netted 28 points, Rudy Gay led all scorers with 31 points and nine assists, and Zach Randolph doubled up with 27 points and 11 rebounds. The Grizzlies shot much better from deep than their normal 33.3 percent. They went for 47.4 percent Monday (9-for-19) including five deep balls from Mayo and three from Gay.
On top of their below-average three-point shooting, the Suns gave up 18 turnovers. They forced 17, so it was a bit of a wash, but 18 turnovers is above average and cutting them down could be the difference in some of these close games.
When the losing will end is unclear, but the Suns get three games at home against New Jersey, Chicago and Golden State. It would be easy to say that those should be three wins over struggling teams (let’s be real, the Nets aren’t struggling. They are just awful. They’re 3-37 awful. They’re “let’s play for the first pick in the draft” awful. Seriously, if the Suns lose that game, they might consider calling it a season. Sorry, back to the Suns.). A trip home could do some good, but as of late, it’s no longer clear if the Suns do actually have any kind of home-court advantage.
The changes to the starting lineup weren’t a bad idea. I really like Lopez starting. Granted, the Suns miss Frye’s three-point shooting, but the interior presence Lopez brought against Memphis is something the Suns haven’t seen much of all season. Maybe it’s time to give him more minutes, especially since Frye is averaging just 4.6 ppg over his last five games after scoring three in 13 minutes today.
As for Barbosa, it’s unclear if a move to the starting lineup helped. He finished with 14 points in 24 minutes. Richardson, on the other hand, played the other 24 and contributed just eight points on 4-of-11 shooting.
Maybe it hasn’t hit them yet, but the Suns are just one game away from being out of the playoff picture in the Western Conference. If they don’t pick things up soon, they could quietly fall to .500. Although so many things are uncertain about this team right now, one thing is certain: we can quit having that “elite team” conversation for a while.