Phoenix Suns center Marcin Gortat said after last Wednesday’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers that “it can’t get worse.”
The brutally honest statement could be challenged after the Suns (14-18) fell to the NBA-worst Sacramento Kings on Sunday night, 94-89.
What looked like another defensive night for the Suns after one quarter slowly fell apart and collapsed entirely in the final six minutes of the game. After a Grant Hill dunk gave the Suns an 87-75 advantage with 5:50 to play, the Suns’ defense seemed to shut down altogether.
The Kings (7-24) went on a 19-2 run in the final 5:31 of the game to hand the Suns their fifth loss in six games. Kings rookie forward DeMarcus Cousins led Sacramento with a career-best 28 points, 13 of which came in the fourth quarter.
“It wasn’t really the fourth quarter, it was the last five minutes of the game,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry told Suns.com. “That’s where the game was decided. We played great up until that point.”
The ice-cold finish was the polar opposite of the Suns’ start to the game. Coming off their best defensive effort in years against the Pistons, the Suns again looked like a new team on defense, allowing the Kings to score just 17 first-quarter points on 23.1 percent shooting.
The Suns went cold in the second quarter, allowing more points (18) in the first six minutes than they had in the first quarter and opening 1-of-10 from the field. The game of hot and cold continued when Suns starters Steve Nash, Mickael Pietrus and Hill returned to the lineup and led a 17-4 Suns run to close the half up 48-39.
Things still seemed OK for the Suns, having allowed an average of 19.5 points in the first two quarters, but the peaks and valleys got worse in the second half. The up-and-down nature of the Suns on both ends of the floor in this game could be part of the adjustment process to new players and the new simplified defense, but it could also highlight a greater issue with consistency.
The Phoenix defense started to slip in the third quarter, allowing 26 points, but maintaining an eight-point advantage after three quarters. The Suns even started the fourth quarter on a 6-0 run to go up by 14 before the massive collapse ensued.
A big reason the Kings hung around for so long was their domination of the boards. Sacramento won the rebounding battle 60-32, including 18-9 on offensive rebounds. The game was the Suns’ worst rebounding effort this season, based on rebounding margin.
Nash posted on Twitter earlier in the day that “The Suns need a Dub. Bad.” Nash clearly knew that the Suns couldn’t afford a loss to the cellar-dwelling Kings and he did everything in his power get a win, going a perfect 8-for-8 from the field while notching 20 points and 12 assists. Nash, however, went scoreless in seven fourth-quarter minutes.
“I was looking back and I could have tried to be more aggressive and I feel like maybe I made a mistake,” Nash told Suns.com. “But we had really good looks down the stretch. When we don’t make them you look up and say I could have been more aggressive. We could have easily gone in and won by 10. We missed and now we lose so I’ll kick myself for it.”
Vince Carter added 17 points for the Suns and Gortat, who again got many more minutes than starting center Robin Lopez, contributed 16 points, six rebounds and three blocks. Gortat’s play may be one positive for the Suns to take back to Phoenix, as the big man seems to be getting more and more comfortable, particularly on the pick-and-roll with Nash.
The other positive, though it feels silly to say after the fourth-quarter bloodbath, was the Suns’ defense— through three and a half quarters. The Suns were contesting shots, forcing turnovers (15 for 14 points) and getting stops. If they can play with that kind of defensive energy for four quarters, they won’t just be beating terrible teams like the Kings but also competing with contenders on a nightly basis.
“They completed plays and we didn’t,” Gentry said. “That was the difference in the game right there. It didn’t have anything to do with attitude or thinking that we had it in the bag or anything like that. They outplayed us the last five minutes.”
It’s clear that the Suns’ focus has shifted to defense. Sunday’s game marked the second straight game the Suns have scored under 100 points (though they probably should have), but on both occasions it wasn’t so much because of the opposing team’s defense as it was the Suns’ increased defensive efforts.
This game came down to the Suns’ inability to finish games, something now-departed Jason Richardson characterized early in the season as a lack of killer instinct. Three quarters of basketball isn’t enough, and the Suns certainly know it won’t be in the coming three-game homestand that brings the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers to US Airways Center.
“We didn’t do what we needed to do to secure the win,” Gentry said. “In the NBA when you don’t do that that’s the end result.”
With Cousins’ 28 points, the Suns have now allowed career-best nights to two of the top five draft picks from the 2010 draft. The Suns allowed No. 2 overall pick Evan Turner to score a career-high 23 points in last Wednesday’s Phoenix loss … The Suns are now 1-10 when failing to score in triple digits. … Gortat was on the floor for 36 minutes while Lopez only saw 12 minutes of action, increasing speculation that Gortat may be headed to the starting lineup.