Before Grant Hill’s injury, the Phoenix Suns’ usual starting lineup of Nash-Dudley-Hill-Frye-Gortat spent 745 minutes together on the floor (second in the NBA to Indiana’s starting five) and was better than any unit that played at least 300 minutes together (18 such lineups).
By beating their opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool, the Suns’ starters were better than powerhouse lineups from teams such as Miami, Oklahoma City, the Lakers and the Clippers.
But as has been the case quite often in the past week without Hill, the Suns’ bench shined whereas the starters just didn’t get the job done tonight in a 104-93 loss to Memphis.
“I think it’s very similar to what happened in Denver,” Suns head coach Alvin Gentry told reporters. “We’ve got to do a better job finishing games, especially on the road. We play hard and we put ourselves in a position to have an opportunity to win a game, and you just have to finish it.”
As was the case in Denver when the Suns’ reserves made a fourth-quarter run to put Phoenix on top before the starters suffered through three scoreless minutes to close out the game, the reserves propelled the Suns on top with a 14-1 run that ended three minutes into the fourth with Phoenix taking a rare lead.
However, it did not last long because when Gentry brought three starters back (Nash, Gortat and Brown) three minutes later with the Suns down two they never got any closer.
Memphis promptly reeled off a 13-4 run (the first two points came against the bench) and with just two minutes remaining this game was over.
It surely sounds counterintuitive to play Sebastian Telfair and Robin Lopez over Nash and Gortat, but the bench found a rhythm that the starters could never capture.
In that way this game also resembled the Utah victory in that each and every starter finished in the negatives of plus/minus and all the reserves were in the positives. Particularly glaring is the fact that Nash was a team-worst minus 21 and Gortat minus 20 whereas Telfair was a team-high plus 10 and Lopez was plus 9.
Obviously that makes this an outlier game for Nash since he annually ranks among the league leaders in this department, but it just goes to show this wasn’t his finest game. It’s hard to fault Gentry for going back to Nash in crunch time based on what he’s done over the course of these past eight seasons, but Telfair was the better point guard tonight as in just 13 minutes he racked up seven points, eight assists and four boards along with a steal and a block.
As the Wins Produced stat would tell you, Telfair was abysmal in the first half of the season with a -0.157 WP48 mark that was worst on the team by a long shot and the kind of number that would say Bassy doesn’t belong in the league. But the second half has been a different story as his 0.124 WP48 means he’s playing above average basketball and in April his 0.333 WP48 is slightly better than Nash’s number and puts him an elite category for these seven games at least (small sample size, I know, just saying it’s been a good month for the Suns’ backup point guard).
During the nine games without Hill, the Suns’ starters have outscored their opponents by about 4.8 points per 100 possessions, which is very good but pales in comparison to what the primary bench unit has accomplished.
In 70 minutes over six games, the Telfair-Redd-Childress-Morris-Lopez has outscored opponents by a whopping 44.5 points per 100 possessions with an astounding offensive rating of 138.2 and a defensive rating of 93.7, including a 25-15 advantage in 10 minutes tonight. Small sample size again, but still an impressive stretch.
All of this data brings up the critical question of how best to integrate Hill when he returns Friday night for the showdown in Houston.
Aside from getting bludgeoned on the boards (Memphis won that battle 43-31 and grabbed 16 offensive caroms), the Suns lost in large part due to Rudy Gay’s 32 points on 13-of-20 shooting. He played 42 minutes and in that time Memphis beat the Suns by 23.
If Hill were healthy it stands to reason he would have done a better job on Gay than anyone the Suns tossed out there instead, and based on Phoenix’s inconsistency with the current starters and its prowess with the original lineup it stands to reason the starting lineup will be much better upon his return.
However, Shannon Brown has ignited the offense many times during these nine games, averaging a team-best 17.9 points and shooting 38.9 percent from three. He has seemed to play a bit more under control with the starters while providing a much-needed scoring boost.
With Hill back, Brown will presumably be relegated to the bench, but I really hate to break up that unit right now. After struggling to find any kind of continuity off the bench most of the season, the Telfair-Redd-Childress-Morris-Lopez unit just really works.
Telfair has been a superb floor general, Redd delivers the scoring, Childress slashes and defends (tonight he added a season-high 10 points during the first six minutes of the second quarter alone), Morris spaces and can go hard to the rack and Lopez defends the interior while getting his share of buckets around the rim.
So now Gentry needs to figure out how to add Hill to jumpstart the first unit and aid the defense and keep Brown heavily involved without messing up the thriving bench unit. It’s no enviable task but my suggestion would be to keep Brown in the starting lineup instead of Dudley, who can replace Childress in the bench alignment. It’s not a perfect suggestion since J-Chill has really contributed, but it comes closest to keeping what’s working intact.
Gentry better find the right combinations with Friday’s humongous game in Houston lingering. The loss really stings as the Suns dropped below Utah into 10th place in the West, two full games behind both the Rockets and Nuggets. If they don’t win on Friday, we can start talking about lottery balls for good.
The Suns are in that position because of a tough loss tonight in which the starters could not finish the rally the reserves started.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.