PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns have been fighting an uphill battle since the season tipped off, trying to integrate a constant flow of new players while battling to create separation from a .500 mark that has never escaped them.
After the Suns’ 91-83 loss to the Dallas Mavericks even the Suns players were resigned to the fact that it just isn’t going to happen this season.
“After this game I don’t think we’re going to be talking about playoffs this year anymore,” said the always honest Marcin Gortat.
The Suns ripped off an 11-3 run that spanned most of February with their season on a brink to momentarily breathe life into their playoff chances, but the four-game losing streak with Steve Nash and Channing Frye ailing put them in a hole that meant the end when Phoenix dropped games to the Lakers, Hornets and Mavericks this week.
Alvin Gentry applauded his team for fighting hard and competing tonight against the best road team in basketball, but afterward Nash admitted a sense of finality has set in with his Suns.
“It feels like it’s over just because we haven’t played as well or won games,” Nash said. “It’s disappointing, but it’s been disappointing all season.”
With their season slipping away, Gentry trotted out a new lineup perhaps with an eye on next year’s first unit.
After talking for months about how he likes the way his rotation lines up with Robin Lopez starting and Marcin Gortat off the bench, the Polish center received his first start without Lopez next to him and second overall as a Sun. Gentry also called Jared Dudley’s number over Vince Carter’s, as Dudley has been outplaying Carter yet been kept on the bench for his energy on the second unit.
Both players put up superb numbers with Gortat going for 20-15 (his fourth career 20-10 game) two days after breaking his nose and Dudley putting up a 20-5-5 line.
The new starting unit helped the Suns jump out to a 26-17 first-quarter lead, a quarter in which Dallas shot just 20 percent but kept this from being a blowout by grabbing nine offensive rebounds.
“You’re damned if you do or damned if you don’t,” Nash said of the lineup change. “We start this lineup and have a good first quarter, but then we don’t have (Gortat) coming off the bench or Jared coming off the bench, so I think we’re a team that’s had so much change this year that I don’t think we know where we are yet. We’re still trying to find who we are with all our new pieces, we’ve got five guys left from last year, and it’s been hard to really get on a roll and momentum.”
It’s downright stunning to hear the captain talk about still trying to find themselves with 10 games remaining in the year. That’s the kind of talk that would be acceptable 10 games into the season, yet with most teams polishing their playoff rotations the Suns haven’t even found themselves.
Perhaps that’s what happens when you try to remake a conference finalist on the fly during the offseason, only to change course in December when you see the parts don’t fit and then add another piece at the deadline.
Unlike last year, nobody settled into roles, and as Alvin Gentry admitted after watching his offense sputter down the stretch once again, the Suns just don’t have that one guy they can throw it to for a basket or a foul like the Mavs can with Nowitzki.
The Suns led this one for the majority of the first three quarters and saw the game turn when Jason Kidd drained a tie-breaking three-pointer with 1:11 left on a play created by Nowitzki.
The Suns countered with an awkward Channing Frye heave for three with Frye trying to draw a foul, and Kidd once again nailed a dagger from deep off a Dirk assist.
“The effort was there, we just can’t quite generate offense down the stretch,” Gentry said. “For us, that’s really where the game is lost. I thought we did a great job defensively.”
The Suns did indeed, holding Dallas to 38.1 percent shooting and 91 points total for the game. Gentry raved about the job Grant Hill and later Gortat did on Dirk, forcing him into a 6-for-19 shooting night, but he made the plays down the stretch while the Suns’ offense faltered.
The Suns shot just 42.5 percent and scored fewer points each successive quarter, but they really lost this game at the three-point line, where they drilled just 1-of-16 (6.3 percent). Phoenix had previously knocked down multiple long balls every game the past seven years.
The Suns had also made at least 10 in a season-high four straight games (second-longest streak of its kind in the NBA this year), and they had knocked down 45.5 percent in those last four games.
“We missed shots,” Gentry said. “I don’t think you can defend the three-point line, you either make them or you miss them and the shots that you take are the shots you get night in and night out. Some nights you shoot them in and some nights you don’t.”
While Carter (three points in 15 minutes) and Lopez (two points, two boards in six minutes) were once again non-existent, the Suns got a solid effort out of Josh Childress off the bench. The largely unused sub tallied 12 points and brought an energy to the game the bench could have used all season.
But with Nash struggling with his shot once again (3-for-11, 4-for-20 the past two games) and Frye going scoreless in 28:30, the Suns didn’t possess enough offensive firepower to beat a team as good as Dallas.
The loss dropped the Suns back to the .500 mark they have become so acquainted with all season, whether it’s been fighting to return to that mark or falling back to it after a nice run.
“It’s been a tough year,” Nash said. “We’re feeling some pains now because of the mountain we had to climb all year, but I think we have to play with class and dignity and go out and fight every night. We have to do that the rest of the season whether we’re in the playoffs or win every game or lose every game. We’ve got to play professional and play with pride.”
That’s about all the Suns have left to play for at this point.
The Suns have lost four in a row to the Mavericks, their longest losing streak to Dallas since 1988. … Phoenix allowed 91 points on 38.1 percent shooting after giving up 109.0 on 48.8 percent shooting in their first two meetings. … The Suns dropped to 3-2 when yielding sub-40 percent shooting. … After the first couple minutes Gortat forgot his nose was even fractured.