PHOENIX — There are only so many ways to tell the same story. When it comes to the Suns, that story can often be told 48 minutes before the final buzzer.
The Suns’ defensive deficiencies once again got the best of them and, despite a late rally, the team dropped its third straight game Friday night, 101-94 to the Trail Blazers.
With 5:56 to play in the game and Portland ahead 94-79, the Suns went on a 9-0 run to pull the score within six points, something they hadn’t done since the end of the first half. In that stretch, the starters plus Hedo Turkoglu played their best basketball of the game, but there simply wasn’t enough time to overcome the deficit.
“When you let yourself get down as deeply as we did, everything has to be perfect,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. “We made a good run; it didn’t work out.”
In a game where the Suns trailed from the 6:44 mark in the first quarter, there couldn’t have been a worse time to start playing hard on both ends, but that’s what happened. Out of a timeout, Gentry reinserted the starters after the bench unit failed to produce the same energy it did in Wednesday’s fourth quarter rally.
Had Gentry gone back to his starters a little earlier, things may have turned out differently, but hindsight is of course 20-20, and Gentry had no reason to expect that the starters would provide a spark after a dismal first half.
“The only thing that’s a little bit disappointing is that we wait until we get down 15 and then we play like I want us to play at the start of the game,” Gentry said.
The Suns’ porous defense allowed Portland to shoot 63.9 percent from the field in the first half, including 50.0 percent from deep.
“Bottom line is that we didn’t have enough stops that we could get at our pace,” Gentry said. “At the end of the night they forced their will on us, from a pace standpoint.”
The Suns’ woes didn’t end on the defensive end though as Portland controlled the game on both ends of the floor. Brandon Roy played an uncharacteristic (of late) 41 minutes and led the game with 26 points and six assists. The Suns, meanwhile, couldn’t buy a decent shot.
“It’s very frustrating,” Suns guard Jason Richardson said. “We did everything we were supposed to do. I don’t know what it is. It wasn’t like they were getting layups; they were just hitting shots.”
Both Gentry and Richardson expressed frustration with the Suns’ lateness in bringing their best defense to the table.
“It was definitely too late,” Richardson said. “We need to come out of the gate like that — aggressive [and] setting the tone from the start. Ever since I’ve been here that’s the type of team we’ve been and that’s the team we need to become this year.”
That last part of what Richardson said underscores what remains the Suns’ biggest problem: identity. Nearly a third of the way through the season, the team remains an enigma and the lineup continues to shuffle. It would be hard, if at all possible, to find a team that has had as much change in its starting lineup and rotation since opening night.
“We have a lot of new guys,” Suns point guard Steve Nash said. “There’s not a lot of continuity.”
Nash led the Suns with 24 points, but expressed frustration with the team’s inability to create plays during the loss. Portland notched 21 assists to Phoenix’s 13, five of which belonged to Nash.
Having no solid identity a third of the way through a very tough December is not a good place to be, but it could be worse than 11-12. The Suns get the benefit of a long layoff and a lot of practice before taking the floor again against Minnesota on Wednesday.
“No one ever said it was going to be easy,” Gentry said. “We’ve just got to keep working at it.”
Gentry said after the game that with the long break, he would explore another change of the starting lineup. He said that center Earl Barron has been beneficial on defense, but a change may be necessary to get the offense going early in games … The Suns were held under 100 points for the third consecutive game for the first time since December 2005. Portland has held the Suns to double digits in all three of the teams’ meetings this season, and the Suns are now 0-7 this year when failing to score in triple digits … Gentry said before the game that when center Robin Lopez comes back from injury (for which no timetable was given) he would most likely come off the bench and be eased back into a starting role.