PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns have played some awful defensive games over the years, but Wednesday’s 123-110 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers does not have many rivals in futility.
This was a Sixers team that had not won a game all season when yielding at least 99 points (0-14), a team that averaged 87.3 points per game in its last six and a team that been held to 81 points or fewer in three of those six.
But this Philadelphia squad got six players in double figures and three in the 20-point range on a season-high scoring night and the team’s second-best shooting night from the field (54.9 percent) all year.
Oh yeah, they did this without their best player with Andre Iguodala sidelined with an Achilles’ injury as Evan Turner (career high 23, previous was 16), Andres Nocioni (season highs with 22 points and 12 rebounds) and Jrue Holiday (25 points, tied for second best of his career) all enjoyed career nights.
The Suns’ offense kept pace most of the evening in a game they trailed 66-65 at the half, but in the end their defensive ineptitude cost them the kind of contest they are supposed to win.
“I guess the most disappointing thing is that we spent so much time working on our defense and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better,” said head coach Alvin Gentry, who deemed the effort “unacceptable.” “I’m not real sure why because I think we play extremely hard in practice. We do a good job there (but) we just can’t seem to take it from there to game situations.”
On a night Vince Carter made his Suns debut, all anybody wanted to talk about afterward was defense, as no matter what the question the conversation always shifted back to that end of the floor.
But no Sun was as passionate and honest as Marcin Gortat, a man who has played the last few years for one of the elite defenses in the league and won’t accept the product the Suns are putting out defensively.
Gortat gave his honest assessment of the situation with some sound bytes brimming with truth that should get some attention in the locker room.
Here’s the best of his interview:
- “It’s just a little bit frustrating when you come in here to the locker room and people are talking about the offense, you guys are talking about the offense. That’s not the way you’re going to win NBA games. I don’t know if it’s just me or maybe I’m just different, but I came from a team where everybody’s competing, trying, do the stuff that Coach is saying. We just totally changing our rotations, changing the stuff we set before the game. We’re not playing hard enough, and there’s a lot of, lot of work in front of us. The positive thing is it can’t get worse.”
- “There are so many things that we’re doing bad, and I just can’t find an explanation. A lot of people are trying to get some rebounds and such, but unfortunately there aren’t too many opportunities for me to rebound because if the team is scoring 100 something points there’s not much to rebound. It’s just frustrating as hell. I’m not going to lie. Now it’s kind of like a reality check for me being from a team that’s winning to a team that’s losing, I mean we are the worst defensive team in the league. We’ve just got to come tomorrow as early as possible and work three hours at least.”
- “I think we’ve just got to be more serious about everything that we do. We’ve got to be more serious, we’ve got a lot of young guys on the team, a lot of potential, but a lot of young guys who don’t know what it’s like to be on top and at a high level. It’s not just the focus of the game, it’s the focus at the practice. You can’t have people coming in and doing different things. You’ve got to read the scouting report, you’ve got to read which guys likes to do what, and we’ve just got to learn. There’s a lot of work, a lot of work. If Philly’s scoring 120 points I don’t want to see teams like Boston, Orlando, San Antonio, Miami or the other teams. It’s going to be bad.”
- “Today we didn’t even try to defend. We were not able to defend anybody.”
- “It’s just different mentality. You’ve got a lot of veterans in Orlando and you’ve got different mentalities, coaching mentality, everything’s different.”
I could not agree more with Gortat and I applaud his courage to tell it like it is without veiling anything behind clichés. You could see how much he cares through those assessments.
What Gortat doesn’t realize is that this team actually went just as far as his Orlando Magic last season because it played a little defense back then. Last year the Suns ranked 19th in defensive efficiency and 11th in defensive field goal percentage whereas this year Phoenix is dead last in both departments. No matter how good their offense is — and it remains very good — nobody can win with that bad of a defense.
“I’m not worried about what’s going to happen with our team offensively,” Gentry said. “We’re going to be fine in that area right there, we’ve always been fine in that area. To me the biggest reason we were able to make a jump and get to the Western Conference Finals last year had nothing to do with what we did offensively. What we have to do is improve on defense, and we have to make a huge jump there.”
Added Grant Hill: “We’ve taken a big step back. We’ve got to show some improvement.”
Gentry chided his team’s defense against dribble penetration while Jared Dudley discussed issues with rotations and rebounding as well (the Suns got out-rebounded 46-31).
Steve Nash, meanwhile, was brilliant once against with 14 points and 11 assists by halftime and 23 and 15 for the game in 38 minutes, giving him at least 15 assists in three straight games for just the third time in his career.
His frustration boiled over with the Suns trailing by seven with three minutes left when Nash was called for an out of bounds violation after Holiday appeared to foul him, as Nash earned a technical and yelled some choice words with the game slipping away.
“It’s frustrating,” Nash said. “We’re losing, we’re not playing well defensively, we’re practicing our defense and it’s not carrying over to the game, and it’s frustrating, so we got to fight through it. We’ve got to test ourselves, our mental strength and our emotional commitment every day and try to bring it and get better and not let it get to us.
“We have to be positive and optimistic to turn it around.”
After a performance like this, that’s all the Suns can do.
Carter’s first Suns game certainly got overshadowed by the team’s defensive struggles, but Vince contributed 18 points on 8-for-20 shooting. He hit just 1-of-6 threes but looked comfortable posting up smaller guards, something he said he hopes to do more of.
“Vince is a terrific player, he’s skilled and experienced,” Nash said. “He’s going to do a lot of things for us.”
Mickael Pietrus also had a fantastic game by scoring 15 points and drilling three treys for Phoenix before fouling out. Gortat chipped in with 13 and six.
The Suns often played with Nash and four former Magic players (including Hill) as the Carter-Gortat-Pietrus triumvirate played more than everyone but Nash and Hill. Channing Frye played just 19 minutes, Goran Dragic and Hakim Warrick 10 and Josh Childress got the dreaded DNP-CD. …
Carter and Childress shared some laughs, while Pietrus sang along to his upbeat music after the game. Perhaps it’s good that the Suns can still have some fun despite the struggles, but I expected a more somber atmosphere.