It’s not uncommon for a team to come out with a poor effort on the last game of a long road trip when the thought of returning home postgame fills the players’ heads.
Despite the Suns finishing up what will be a 6,475-mile trip spanning over 231 hours by the time the team touches down at Sky Harbor Airport in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, there’s no way the Suns are overlooking this one.
That would be the case even if the Suns hadn’t just blown a game in demoralizing fashion Saturday in Detroit, as the last time the Suns and Sixers renewed acquaintances Phoenix’s defense got throttled for 123 points in a game that was such a low point at the time proclaimed afterward that “it can’t get worse.”
Of course, Gortat was wrong, as things got much worse. The Suns collapsed in Sacramento, showed no fight in blowout losses to the Knicks and Nuggets and then suffered that disaster in Detroit Saturday night right when they were starting to put things together with five wins in a row.
The Suns have most certainly not forgotten that Philly loss. Before leaving on this trip, players pointed to this game as one in which they have a score to settle just like they did about the New York game a Monday ago.
Even with all the low points thereafter, the Sixers loss stung particularly hard because of how terrible the Suns’ defense looked against a Philly squad missing star player Andre Iguodala, turning in its second-worst effort of the season by allowing 129.5 points per 100 possessions. Evan Turner (23 points), Andres Nocioni (22 and 12 boards) and Jrue Holiday (25) all enjoyed career nights as a Sixers team that had not won all year when yielding over 99 points and a squad that had averaged 87.3 points in its pervious six absolutely blistered the Suns offensively.
That game was a wakeup call of sorts for the Suns. They immediately went to work for almost three hours at the next day’s practice trying to shore up some of these issues by simplifying the defense.
This game can be seen as something of a measuring stick to see how much the Suns have improved defensively since that meltdown against the Sixers in US Airways Center. NBA players generally say they don’t think about topics like revenge, but you have to believe the Suns are thinking about a little payback from that last contest.
The other issue at play here is the state of this road trip. Going in I thought a 4-1 trip would be fantastic (considering a likely New York loss), but even after the Suns beat the Knicks I kind of felt they would slip up somewhere along the line. I certainly did not think the Suns would lose in the fashion they did on Saturday, when tired legs and a stingy Detroit defense caught up to them, but at the same time 4-1 any way you can get it would be a really successful trip.
However, 3-2 against the kind of opposition the Suns have faced kind of continues the “one step forward, two steps back” routine Phoenix has been perfecting all season. The Suns need to finish this trip off the right way to maintain the feeling that this team could actually be gelling rather than make it seem like the winning streak was more a function of the easy schedule.
The last time these teams met up Gortat spoke of how the Suns were the worse defensive team in the league and how coming to a losing team like the Suns was “a reality check” along with a plethora of other honest assessments that went well beyond the normally accepted cliches we’re used to after tough losses.
With almost a month to integrate the new acquisitions and become more cohesive on defense, this game will show how far the Suns have come since the last Philly matchup, a contest the team has been slow to forget.