Los Angeles Lakers 99, Phoenix Suns 95 -- Getting closer

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PHOENIX — As the Phoenix Suns drift further and further below .500, they must take their positives where they can get them.

Although Wednesday’s 99-95 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers featured the same old lack of rebounding and lack of crunch time scoring, the Suns moved ever so close to figuring things out and scoring that much-needed quality win.

“Once again, I thought we played well,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “We have nothing tangible to show for it, but I think over the long haul, it’s going to help us. I’m disappointed about the loss, but encouraged about what I see for our team, and what is going on with it.”

It’s now been two weeks (feels like much longer, right?) since Marcin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus first put on Phoenix Suns uniforms and one week since Vince Carter joined them for active duty.

In that time these newcomers have had to learn their offensive and defensive responsibilities while the Suns have adjusted defensive schemes. You just can’t create chemistry like this on the fly and thus the Suns have lost five of six games against lackluster competition aside from the Heat and Lakers games.

“The positive out of it is that we’re fighting like Hell,” Vince Carter said. “We’re really starting to put it together. The most important thing is just to stay focused, still believe in each other. We’re just right there, and I think if we put one or two together we’ll feel better about ourselves and our situation.

“We just ask the fans to be patient. We know you want to see your team win. We want to win. It’s not fun coming in here and being so close. It’s just frustrating to keep going out and for whatever reason getting beat, but we’re right there.”

The biggest reason the Suns lost this one is that they got crushed on the boards once again, this time by a 47-31 margin. That’s despite the Suns starting a front line of Robin Lopez and Marcin Gortat, but Lopez was once again ineffective with two points and one board and poor defense against Andrew Bynum.

Gentry was pleased with his twin towers, but they inherently ruined the spacing on offense (aside from the fact Gortat isn’t used to playing the four and wasn’t always in the right spot) and their defense/rebounding didn’t make up for it. When asked about this lineup, Steve Nash said it was necessary to combat the Lakers’ size but he doesn’t expect it to become a Suns staple.

The Suns fought back from a nine-point second-quarter deficit when Jared Dudley exploded for 15 points on 6-for-7 shooting in the period as Phoenix took a 50-49 halftime lead.

The Lakers then jumped out to an early second half lead but could never put the Suns away until the very end. Phoenix’s final rally cut an eight-point lead with four minutes to go down to one when Carter drilled a three in the corner.

But Ron Artest followed a pair of Shannon Brown free throws with a back-breaking three that the Suns never recovered from when Carter missed a shot, Gortat made one of two free throws and Hill got blocked before Carter missed a three with 10 seconds left and the Suns down four.

“It was a disappointing loss,” Steve Nash said. “We didn’t play bad, we just didn’t make enough plays or play well enough to win the game, so it’s disappointing, but we got to stay positive and keep moving.”

Added Grant Hill: “It’s one of those games where you kind of go back, just a bounce of the ball, one shot, one play you could do over again, but just learn from it.”

The Suns suffered their second straight loss when yielding fewer than 100 points after dropping just two of their 33 such previous games. That means Phoenix held the Lakers below 100 points for the first time since Jan. 17, 2008, a span of 11 consecutive meetings.

That’s another glass half full/half empty proposition. Either you can say the Suns’ defense has been improving on the heels of the stinker against Philly with their stifling performance against Detroit or you can say their offense hasn’t been good enough in stretches to win such games, failing to score 100 in three of their past five defeats.

With every loss the Suns make this hole more and more difficult to dig out of. There’s no shame in losing to Kobe, Pau and the defending champs, it’s just a shame when losses to the Clippers, Sixers and Kings in the past week make the straits so dire.

The Suns are showing progress, putting together solid stretches (the bench played particularly well in the second quarter tonight) and showing glimpses of becoming a playoff-caliber team. But time is not on their side as they start to approach the midway point of their season still in training camp mode.

“It’s going to take time, we just don’t have time,” Gentry said. “We don’t have that luxury of being the first couple games of the season where we’re trying to find things out. When you change the team the way we have it’s not going to be the same team we were last year, so we have to find new ways to score at the end of the game and how to create situations and mismatches and things like that.

“That all is just a process. We just need to keep working and hope the chemistry and everything kicks in and we can go on a run where you win 10 out of 12 or something like that to get back in the race. That’s the way it has to be.”

As the national media circles the Suns like vultures waiting for them to gut the team and rebuild (AKA trade Nash), all Gentry and the players can do is continue to try to find that chemistry that could turn this season around. Many of the interviewed Suns believe they just need a couple quality wins to get rolling back on the playoff path.

“We went through the same thing last year,” Gentry said of these late-game struggles, “and the one thing I can say about all the guys in that locker room is that they’re a confident bunch. Although we’re struggling and our record is not where we think it should be I think that we’ll continue to play. I think we really feel like at some stage it will all come together for us.”

Perhaps it will, but if it doesn’t happen soon then it may be too late.

And 1

The Oregon and Auburn football teams attended the game. … Jared Dudley scored 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting to go with six boards. Dudley now has eight career performances of 19 or more points, four of which have come in the last seven games. … Gortat went for 12 and nine, and he has now scored in double figures in four of six games with the Suns after doing so just twice in 23 contests for the Magic. … Orlando has won seven straight after dropping its first two following the trade, so that team has gelled considerably faster than Phoenix. … Six Suns scored in double figures.

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