Preview: Phoenix Suns (7-13) at New Orleans Hornets (4-17)


Phoenix Suns 120, New Orleans Hornets 103

Suns

Hornets

PHOENIX — There’s not much time to put filmwork into footwork this lockout-shortened season. Rest is more important than continuity in a way, and because of it a struggling team like the Phoenix Suns has little time to rework problems big or small.

They can only look at themselves in a mirror.

“I’m going to tell you, we have to find some ways to win some games,” Marcin Gortat said after the Suns got throttled by Dallas two days ago. “I’m not going to blame anybody. I’m looking at myself right now.”

Phoenix can bury the 23-point loss to the Mavericks in the depths of their memories with a road win tonight against the lowly New Orleans Hornets, and should Steve Nash be ready to go, this could be the game where he breaks the team’s all-time assist mark.

In what’s already been a season full of tipping points, this one could be a sign of how the Suns react to frustration. Acting as a catalyst, that frustration could lead to Phoenix playing with a redefined effort or a resigned attitude of failure. How long it will take to reach one of those points though, is hard to judge.

“I’m just going to say we got to play better,” Gortat said, “because honestly I don’t want to say anything else. I might get in trouble.”

The Suns center then went out of his way to say that this team would win if it had 12 copies of Josh Childress, who has found himself with increasing rotation time in the past three games. It was, indeed, a telling sign that the man who couldn’t fit into head coach Alvin Gentry’s plans — seemingly for the second year in the row — was playing faster and harder than some of his teammates.

That all comes down to identity. Childress has one with his old-school hair cut and his rugged style of play that might indeed have fit in the NBA of the late 1980s and early 1990s, where players had to give their opponents more than a tap on the back to get called for a foul.

And when identity is what we’re talking about, maybe the Suns as a team still lack one.

They’ve admitted that this isn’t the offensive juggernaut of the past, but at the same time, the Suns aren’t consistent enough to say they’re a hard-nosed defensive squad either. The 122-99 loss to the Mavericks on Monday was evidence of such, but even when they’re winning games in the 80s as they did the game prior, how many guys on the team could be labeled as tough guys?

“We have to really focus on, ‘What makes us better?’ and not worry about other teams,” Childress said, “What makes us good? When are we good? What are we doing when we’re at our best?

“When we start doing that a little more, things will be more positive.”

Three keys for Phoenix

1) Protect the paint. The Hornets are not good at offense, coming in 25th in the league in offensive rating and second-to-last in pace. That all stems from having wings who aren’t efficient. Starters Marco Belinelli and Trevor Ariza have respective 45.7 and 41.4 effective field goal percentages, and the Hornets as a team shoot 27.7 percent from the three-point line. For the Suns, that means keeping tabs on every rebound and keying in on stopping buckets in the paint.

2) Give it to Gortat — a lot. At 15 points per game, Marcin Gortat sure doesn’t get a whole lot of touches. Aside from a poor shooting game against Portland last week, he’s a sure-fire 20-point scorer when he gets 15 or more shot attempts per game. The Suns need a solid Plan B when their offense isn’t clicking, plus it’s probably a good idea to force opponents to, you know, make a mid-game strategic change every once in a while should Gortat get on a roll.

3) Beware of Jarrett. Eric Gordon hit the game-winning shot against Phoenix in the season opener, but he’s been sidelined for all but two games this season with a right knee injury. Taking over the lead guard responsibilities in his place, Jarrett Jack is quietly putting up 16.1 points and 6.9 assists. The Suns would be wise to hedge heavily on the point guard off screens, and maybe even give Grant Hill a look on defense.

  • Scott

    Okay … you all know I believe the Suns desperately need more of an inside game. Gortat needs more touches, and he also needs Lopez in there to help him take over the paint. Being stronger in the paint, instead of sending just one guy in there, would help the Suns rebound, get to the line, and ultimately make it easier for the Suns to score 3s and avoid turnovers.

    Somewhat distantly related to that, here’s what Coach Karl of the Denver Nuggets had to say about his own team’s play in a recent loss to the Grizzlies:

    The Nuggets, George Karl heatedly said, did not lose Tuesday because of missed shots at the buzzer — even though they missed two of them. Andre Miller missed a jumper, sending the game to overtime, and Rudy Fernandez missed a 3, sending the Grizzlies fans home happy. But after the Nuggets’ 100-97 loss at Memphis, the Denver coach was steadfast that the lack of a closer — which Denver hasn’t had since Carmelo Anthony forced a trade to New York — was not the main reason the Nuggets lost Tuesday. It was, Karl surmised, “fourth or fifth.” “If you want to go to that, then that’s because you want to write that because that’s what everybody wants to write,” Karl said. “If you watch this game — if we made free throws, we rebound the ball and don’t turn the ball over, we win this game. So now you’re going to the fourth or fifth reason why we lost the game? “We will find a better consistency on making shots when we have to. It was the turnovers, the frustration with their pressure.” Indeed, Memphis mauled the Nuggets, who turned the ball over an eye-popping 25 times, two off Denver’s season-worst 27 (Jan. 4 against the Kings). While Karl described the road team as one that “ran out of gas,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins described the home team as “diving and leaving their hearts and souls out there.”

  • Zak

    Yes, Jarrett Jack has certainly stepped up this season and isn’t getting all the attention his improved game deserves. On the surface NO looks like a bad team but they are dangerous even without Gordon.

  • Mel.

    I can deal with the sum of a limbo season, the appearance of quasi-intentional tanking and the prospect of losing Nash… but seeing Gortat not only blame himself for the team’s woes–but also express something that looks a lot like frustration with management–is REALLY annoying.

    I mean, seriously. Nice of the guy to assume the default Two-Time posture in “blaming himself,” “looking inward” and whatever else, but… the five-spot simply isn’t the blood and guts of whether or not a team succeeds, in today’s NBA. The guy that Marcin used to back up can’t jump-start a fairly talented and well-coached franchise like Orlando out of malaise, and even the “second best center” in the entire NBA is a constant afterthought behind what Kobe Bryant’s doing with the ball.

    So, while I appreciate the Hammer’s desire to shoulder the blame, he can’t do anything more than he’s already doing with this roster. Guy goes in hard every night, produces as consistent a double-double as anybody on a sub-.500 team, and does everything he’s asked… short of magically growing another half-foot and developing a dead-eyed 18-foot jumpshot, he’s doing EVERYTHING that a winning big man should.

    I just hope that the franchise’s “management in absentia” isn’t so out of touch with reality that they let his frustration continue to the point where he walks. When Nash leaves–and hell, even if he doesn’t–this SHOULD be Marcin’s team. No argument, no reviews based on seniority, no question; he needs to know that, or we’re just onto the next potential superstar who uses Phoenix as a glorified training camp before seeking big bucks in another city.

  • Zak

    @ Mel – On the plus side I see Gortat’s taking the blame onto himself as him starting to see the Suns as his team instead of Nash’s team. Real leaders take the blame for failure but give the praise to others when the team succeeds. I see this as a plus for the future. Gortat will be in Phoenix for 3 more years unless they trade him and I want him to think of Phoenix as his team. I want him to take control and hopefully push HIS teammates to do more and push themselves to play as well as they can. I think that taking personal responsibility for a poor game is the first step in that direction. If he continues to play his absolute best, then the next step is to push his teammates to do the same. If Phoenix doesn’t move in the right direction in the next couple of years, Gortat might bolt but if they do I see him staying for many years to come.

  • Mel.

    ^Exactly. And I actually thought Marcin was only signed through the end of next season, so that’s at least a BIT of a potential silver lining, for the reasons you’ve put in print. That’s plenty of time for Gortat to become the undeniable lynchpin of the franchise–and honestly, I think he’s got a better shot than anybody in the impending FA market or current roster at doing so–barring some idiotic shuck-and-jive job from our pals in personnel.

    Of course, now that we’re having this discussion, look for him to be packaged up in a Nash deal that nets us three second-round picks and DeMarcus Cousins. Siiiiiigh.

  • Kenton

    @ Mel: don’t forget; those second round picks will be given to Boston and Atlanta for two-three more wing role-players with a lot of tenacity but no playmaking ability. If we’re lucky, those players will be 34+ years old.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/True_Rys Rich Anthony, (KJL)

    The transition has already begun.

    Gortat is already looking at taking over the captain’s chair and I love it. He basically said, “It’s on me because I’m the guy here now and I’m supposed to lead us.”

    Then: “Play Childress A LOT or I’m going to be pissed.”

    And: “To you people upstairs, get me some help or I’ll be bolting out of here after next season.”

    Again, it’s about identity. If Gentry gives up on SSOL and fashions something a bit more aggressive this team could have a good blueprint going forward.

    The SNOW system doesn’t work anymore.. What you need now are 2 slashers, 2 bangers, and a shooter.

    Nash / Childress / Hill / Morris / gortat > Price / JMZ / Warrick / Frye / RoLo.

    And guys, playing Gortat and Lopez together WILL NOT WORK on either end of the court. They’re too similar in what they do, and Gortat is a billion times better than Lopez at it.

    It’ll just be foul trouble and penalty free throws for the other team really quick. And a lot of blood.

  • Kenton

    I’m sure it’ll be totally obvious once you tell me; but if SSOL = seven seconds or less, what is SNOW an acronym for?

  • Scott

    The game’s over now, and though other players had better stats, I give the game ball to Telfair. He was playing hard defense, but kicked up his aggression a notch or two once he got called for the phantom foul and then T-ed up. He started playing with a fury.

    At which point Price said, “Hey, glad to have someone else play with aggression!” and from there the attitude spread. Suddenly the Suns played faster, more unconscious ball, being in the right places, helping, and ultimately playing not only flying defense but also driving offense.

    Even when players got switched out … you could see Dudley come into the game with an extra aggressive look on his face, and Nash and Warrick and Gortat – all the easygoing guys – seemed focused, determined, and excited to be finally playing with swift and strong emotion.

    So … good job, Suns! You uncorked some potential there. But can you keep it going?

    I realize Telfair is not going to be an aggressive leader every night. But hopefully that feeling they had tonight will plant a seed in the consciousnesses of the players, so they know a little better what to do as individuals and what they can do as a team.

    It was inspiring play. Finally. :)

  • Scott

    Heh … I just noticed that Telfair had a +/- of -14 for the game. Just looking at the stats, you wouldn’t think he turned the game around.

  • Sean

    Kenton-

    SNOW stands for “Steve Nash Over Winning”, something Rich made up a couple weeks back.

    I didn’t see the game tonight, but judging from Nash’s increased numbers, Gortat’s numbers, and Childress’ playing time, I wonder if their style might be changing a bit. Comments, anyone?

  • Scott

    @Sean -

    It’s not changing so far as I can tell. Yes, the 2nd half was wonderful, but the first was pretty much the same ol’ stuff we’ve been seeing, and I was already preparing myself for another Suns fade out.

    Hill is out with injury; that’s one reason why you’re seeing more Childress minutes.