PHOENIX — Last season, the Phoenix Suns fit together a bit like freshman residents of a college dorm. They hung out constantly, joked endlessly, and their camaraderie was outwardly visible.
What resulted was a team with possibly more chemistry than any other in the NBA. A team so tightly knit that it outplayed all expectations and made a surprise run to the Western Conference Finals.
This season, something’s missing.
The Suns are now 11-12, which isn’t as bad as it could be, but considering they’ve yet to find an identity (much less a regular starting lineup) it’s not a great place to be.
After the Suns’ loss to Portland on Friday, the sentiment that the team was missing something was widespread, though most simply offered the problem and no solution.
“We’ve got to get our spirit back — our mojo, whatever you want to call it,” forward Grant Hill said after the loss, the team’s third straight. “Our identity is loose and we come out and play with a lot of energy, and we’ve struggled with, at least tonight, having that energy.”
The Suns’ apparent lack of energy allowed the Trail Blazers to set the tone for Friday’s game. They walked all over the Suns’ defense and shut down the league’s highest-scoring offense for the third time this season. (The Suns have failed to score in triple digits against Portland in all three meetings this season.)
Portland guard Brandon Roy seemed to have such an easy time that he played 41 minutes on shaky knees that have been the subject of much discussion lately. He waltzed his way to 26 points against the Suns just a night after the Trail Blazers topped the Orlando Magic at home.
“It looked like we were the ones that played last night and flew all night,” Hill said. “They came out and looked as though they had more energy than us.
“You can look at strategy, you can look at this, that, and I think half of the time it’s not Xs and Os. It’s energy. We’ve got to figure that out.”
Steve Nash seemed to be the root of the missing-spirit talk, which seemed appropriate on a night when the Suns’ leader looked frustrated with the team’s inability to put together a productive stretch.
Nash led the team with 24 points, but the more telling statistic was his team-high 19 field goal attempts. It was, as always, a bad sign for the Suns when Nash, a natural creator, was forced to carry the load on his own.
“I think right now our team’s just not as loose as it should be and we don’t quite have that spirit that we need to play, I think, up to our capabilities,” Nash said. “It’s kind of an intangible thing, but it can be very tangible, I think, on nights when you know it’s just there and you see the results.”
The 2010-11 incarnation of the Suns has shown flashes of that spirit and chemistry that took the league by surprise last year, such as the team’s win over the Lakers behind 22 three-pointers or Wednesday’s fourth quarter rally from behind 14 points (ignore the eventual overtime loss).
“The difference is this year we’ve got a lot of new guys,” Nash elaborated. “There’s not a lot of continuity. I think the guys are going to have to really try to make those new guys feel good, like they’re part of it, that there’s no pressure.”
The Suns’ struggles are painting a perfect picture of what losing can do to a team’s attitude. Walking the .500 line seems to have put many Suns in a different mood.
“When we have a scowl on our face and we try to play, that’s not who we are,” Hill said. “We’re not effective when we’re playing that way. We’ve got to just enjoy it [and] have fun.”
Nash echoed that sentiment, almost to the word, and stressed that the Suns aren’t a “muscle team” that can play with an intimidating style.
So how do the Suns solve this “mojo” problem? No one seems to know yet, but the hope is that three days of practice will produce some kind of answer.
“We can’t let the frustration get us down and feel negative about things,” Nash said. “We’ve just got to have fun and let the pressure dissipate. We don’t have much of a chance of winning if we’re not having fun.”
Suns coach Alvin Gentry didn’t seem to have a solid solution yet, but did have an idea about first steps.
“We’ve got to get our confidence back and understand that we’re a good team,” Gentry said. “I don’t think we need to panic or anything like that, but we need to establish a sense of urgency.”
For the time being, it appears the Suns’ identity crisis will continue. Gentry said before Friday’s game that their wouldn’t be any more lineup changes until Robin Lopez returns from injury, but he contradicted himself after the game, suggesting that recently-signed center Earl Barron’s defensive contributions may not be enough to keep him in the starting lineup.
And though the Suns’ continue to battle the challenges that come with a transformed roster, you won’t hear them complaining about it or making excuses for their current situation.
“This is the team we have,” Gentry said. “We’ve just got to get everyone clicking on the same page.”