New Orleans Hornets 85, Phoenix Suns 84 -- No go-to player

PHOENIX — Eric Gordon showed the Phoenix Suns how badly they need a go-to player in New Orleans’ 85-84 victory over the Phoenix Suns tonight in US Airways Center.

Gordon drilled a 20-foot jumper over the outstretched arms of Jared Dudley with four seconds left that ended up being the game winner after Markieff Morris threw the ball away on the Suns’ final possession. Dudley missed a jumper on the Suns’ previous possession that would have put them up three.

As we have feared all offseason, the Suns lacked a go-to player when they needed a bucket in crunch time, which was a striking contrast to the Hornets, as everybody in the building knew Gordon would take their final shot.

“We couldn’t come up with the big basket when we needed it,” said head coach Alvin Gentry.

Although I don’t love the Hornets’ strategy of running an isolation play for their best player — why run a play you would never consider during any other sequence on the most important play of the game? — this game came down to New Orleans having a player who can get a bucket at anytime, the kind of guy not on Phoenix’s roster.

On the Suns’ final play with 4.2 seconds remaining, Steve Nash inbounded the ball to Morris. Robin Lopez tried to set a pick on Nash’s man but whiffed. Then Nash said he “tried to find some space” while Morris thought he would curl and thus the rookie threw the pass out of bounds.

“He made a pretty decent pass, we just had our signals crossed a little bit,” Nash said. “It’s just one of those things. We haven’t played together, he hasn’t been in that situation much.”

The play call made sense because with a good pick and a well-executed pass, this game would have come down to an open Nash jumper, something any Suns fan would live with.

But Lopez didn’t execute the screen and Morris didn’t make the right read, and like that the Suns are 0-1.

The Suns’ defense played well in limiting New Orleans to 44.3 percent shooting, including 2-for-16 marksmanship from deep, and holding them to 12 offensive rebounds.

But once again, the Suns’ offense hardly resembled the elite units of recent yore. The Suns shot just 39.5 percent for the game and 5-for-25 from distance. The wings in particular struggled, as Dudley, Grant Hill and Shannon Brown combined to shoot 7-for-29.

“A lot of it was what we did offensively,” Gentry said. “We’ve got to get out and run, be able to create space for Steve to drive lanes, be able to roll and catch and finish, and then we have to knock down shots.”

Aside from the late failed pick, Lopez stood out as a bright spot, recording his third career 20-point game with a 21-point, seven-rebound performance while making last year’s lost season seem like a distant memory.

Lopez amazingly lost eight inches off his vertical leap last season, which Gentry said is just about all the way back. Lopez actually played five more minutes than Marcin Gortat, and combined the Suns got 34 points and 12 rebounds on 14-for-21 shooting from the center position.

“I just think he’s in a much better place than he was,” Gentry said of Lopez. “I think mentally he’s been really focused and locked in. I was happy with him and I was happy with Gortat. If every night we can get 34 points and 12 rebounds from that spot, that’s pretty doggone good.”

Added Nash, “I thought Robin continued his great play throughout the preseason tonight. He’s looked really active and aggressive and he was big for us tonight. He had a really nice game, and I’m just happy for him. He had a struggle last year both physically and mentally. To come back strong says a lot about him.”

Morris contributed an active seven points and nine boards in 25 minutes as well. He still struggled with fouls (four) but brought a physicality and toughness that Lopez said rubbed off on the rest of the team.

“I was cool, comfortable, relaxed,” Morris said. “I played at Kansas, you know what I mean? Got to be comfortable.”

The biggest positive of the night comes from the development of the Suns’ frontcourt, minus Channing Frye, who once again could not find his jumper on a 1-for-6 outing. The trio of Gortat, Lopez and Morris on this night gave the Suns the kind of physical interior presence they have long lacked.

If the Suns could have knocked down just one more shot, the bigs would have been the story of the night and the ongoing struggles of the offense could be swept under the rug until next time.

Instead the Suns are left lamenting their lack of offensive flow on the way to shooting 40 percent from the field and 20 percent from three, and the fact that they could not execute on two final possessions whereas the Hornets’ new go-to guy needed just  one.

Thus the Suns dropped their first home game of the season to a team squarely in rebuilding mode, a place the Suns will soon find themselves with more offensive performances like this.

“It’s a shame,” Nash said. “It’s a game we definitely need to win, but we showed that we have a lot of work to do. We’ve got to stay optimistic so we can cover that ground.”

And 1

  • Despite his solid preseason, Hakim Warrick got a DNP-CD as all the backup power forward minutes went to Morris and Childress soaked up the backup three time. Morris and Lopez played the entire fourth quarter, while Gortat and Frye did not play a second. Ronnie Price (11:15) and Sebastian Telfair (7:04) split the backup point guard duties and neither stood out offensively although Price was once again solid on the defensive end.
  • Gortat on playing with his broken right thumb: “It was obviously very uncomfortable for me to play with the tape on my finger. I had some possessions where the ball just bounced out of my finger and went to the side, I didn’t grab the rebound, so I was pretty pissed about that. … I’ve got to play through it. It’s not going to go away in two, three days, I’ve got to play like that the next three weeks, so hopefully the next game is going to be better.”
  • I also asked Gortat on what he feels a front line with himself and Lopez would look like: “I think it would look great. You have two big guys in the paint who would rebound the ball very well. I would probably play as a four man, and that’s one of the options. We already spoke with Coach about that and we’ll see, we’re just waiting for the opportunity.”
  • Before the game Gentry spoke about the importance of defending home court: “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing at home, you have to win your home games if you want to have any chance at all in this league to be a playoff team. We’ve been a really good home team in the past. I think if you’re going to be a factor in the playoff race then you’ve got to be successful at home.”
  • Gentry on Frye’s shooting slump: “It’s like any shooter, I don’t worry about it. When some of the good hitters in baseball are struggling I don’t think anybody really spends a lot of time talking to them about how they’re swinging or what’s going on there. I don’t think we have to go in and reinvent Channing’s shot.”
  • As the Suns players and coaches were introduced tonight they walked down the aisles in US Airways Center onto the floor.

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