PHOENIX – Between the 40 media members at the morning shootaround and the massive hype surrounding Amare Stoudemire’s homecoming, the Phoenix Suns’ Friday night, ESPN matchup with the New York Knicks figured to be full of intensity and excitement.
But when when the final buzzer sounded, boos rang through US Airways Center and the loudest cheers of the night came when Stoudemire’s name was announced during opening introductions.
Alvin Gentry’s post-game press conference lasted all of 90 seconds, and the locker room was filled with silence and a host of “I don’t know” responses after a lifeless effort.
STAT and Mike D’Antoni owned the place they used to call home like it was 2005, as Amare went for 23 and nine, Raymond Felton ripped off his first career triple-double (23 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists, five three-pointers) and the Knicks drilled 17 triples on their way to a dominant 121-96 win – Phoenix’s second-worst loss of the season.
“Didn’t play well at all. I think the one thing we’ve got to do is we make progress defensively and then we take steps backwards,” Gentry said. “When we’re struggling wth our shot we’ve got to be able to guard guys defensively so there’s not that kind of separation. We didn’t do that and the end result is an embarrassing loss.”
While Stoudemire and Felton lived up to the hype that has New York City alive again, the Suns showed why they’ve become an NBA afterthought through 34 games. Thanks to porous rebounding – the Knicks won the battle 59-34 — and a non-existent offense, the Suns have now lost 11 of their last 14 games.
Giving up over 50 percent shooting from the field and three-point land is clearly an area of concern, but most of the Knicks’ scoring came as a result of a stagnant Suns offense.
In the past when the Suns would give up three after three, they’d at least bounce back with a barrage of threes and a resurgence to make a game out of it. Not this Phoenix team.
Using their 11th different starting lineup of the season – Steve Nash, Vince Carter, Mickael Pietrus, Grant Hill, Josh Childress — the Suns failed to reach 100 points for the fourth consecutive game, which is the first time that’s happened since December of 2005.
When asked about if he could have expected such a drop-off in offensive production, Nash said, “No, not really. It’s been a surprise.”
They’re no longer the league’s top offense, but rather an imbalanced roster with no true No. 1 option, that shot 42.7 percent from the field and 6-of-24 from three against a Knicks team that surrenders 106.5 points per game (28th in the NBA).
They looked stagnant for the better part of the first half, settling for contested jumper after contested jumper, resulting in 16-of-40 shooting and a 55-45 deficit at halftime.
“I think we lost our confidence because all of their balls were going in and ours weren’t, and it spiraled and we’ve got to just fight through that and be tougher,” Nash said.
Even thought they struggled early on, the Suns were still more than in the game to start the third quarter, but the Knicks changed that quickly against another new Suns lineup — Hakim Warrick started the second half at center instead of Childress.
New York made 10 of its first 13 shots in the quarter, including four threes – two by Felton and two by Shawne Williams – to take a 77-54 lead with 6:58 remaining in the third. Although the Knicks got hot, it came as a result of a four-minute Suns drought where they failed to score a single point.
Vince Carter scored five quick points, but that was about all the life the Suns showed for the rest of the game. They hung their heads, tried to shoot themselves back into it and came up well short.
The Suns were good offensively to start the season, averaging 107.0 points per game prior to their four-game offensive disappearing act. But over the last four games they’ve averaged only 93.0 points per game against some sub-par defenses.
Hill, who did a solid job on Stoudemire keeping him out on the perimeter, had no answers for the Suns’ troubles offensively.
“I don’t know. I wish I had answers for you,” Hill said. “Maybe you guys can give me some answers. I think a lot of it is the spirit, getting defeated and deflated.”
They were dominated in every facet of the game, and continued their epic struggles on the boards against a team that ranks 21st in the league in rebounds per game and 25th in differential.
Amare was playing for more than just a win, and Felton played out of his mind, but the Suns looked lifeless with the nation watching. Not only can’t they rebound or defend, their once-electric offense is none-existent.
“We’re on that slippery slope where you’re getting in a dark hole like we don’t really hold our ground, fight and be passionate about overcoming,” Nash said.
Carter, their supposed go-to-guy, sat in the locker room with ice on his knees and his face in his hands in disappointment. Gentry candidly said, “I got to do a better job, the players got to do a better job, we’ve all got to do a better job.”
At 14-20 the Suns are searching for answers and an identity, while the Knicks are playing like the Suns of old. During shootaround Amare said, “I don’t know what happened,” when asked about the downfall of the Suns.
They aren’t quite sure either.
“I’ve tried like everybody to sort of figure out what exactly it is and I’ve probably racked my brain doing that and I’m probably mentally drained because of that,” Hill said.