Indiana Pacers 97, Phoenix Suns 91 -- Another opportunity squandered

Indiana's Roy Hibbert (55) and David West (21) bottle up former Pacer Jermaine O'Neal. (Jessica Hoffman)

Indiana’s Roy Hibbert (55) and David West (21) bottle up former Pacer Jermaine O’Neal. (Jessica Hoffman)

Another late lead thrown away. Another road game lost. The Phoenix Suns fell to the Indiana Pacers 97-91 on Friday night in a game they should have won.

This season has been marked by long streaks, both good and bad. The Suns are in the middle of another very bad streak at the moment. This loss marks Phoenix’s seventh road defeat in a row and their fourth straight loss overall. The Suns, as they have so many times this season, trailed by double digits early in this one. Though they fought back to take a fourth-quarter lead, the ‘W’ was once again pried from their grasp. Poor defensive play early and ugly offensive execution late were to blame.

Indiana has overachieved this season. Playing without leading scorer Danny Granger, the Pacers are a surprising fourth in the Eastern Conference standings. Their success has been spurred by their incredible defense. Frank Vogel’s team allows a paltry 0.957 points per possession, which is tops in the NBA. Offensively, the Pacers have struggled. They are currently 28th in both offensive efficiency and FG percentage (42.6 percent).

In the first half of this game, the Pacers were stellar on both ends of the floor. They held the Suns to just 44 points, while exploding offensively for 58 points on 56 percent shooting. The Pacers netted 20 points in the paint and knocked down 7-of-10 shots from beyond the arc. The Suns’ defense was really nowhere to be found. Nearly all of the Pacers’ attempts from downtown were wide open. When they weren’t bombing from outside, Indiana got into the paint at will. Other than limiting David West to two points, the Suns literally did nothing right defensively in the first half. There was no better evidence of that than Tyler Hansborough scoring 12 points in under nine minutes.

The scouting report on the Suns no doubt says, “Move the ball constantly — a wide open shot will present itself.” Phoenix seems incapable of defending for all 24 seconds on a consistent basis. Opponents need only play with a small amount of patience and discipline to crack the Suns’ defense. Phoenix is too slow along the perimeter to deal with quick ball handlers, and they seem incapable of closing out on three-point shooters. Assistant coach Elston Turner was added to the coaching staff to improve Phoenix’s defense, but the team seems adrift on that end of the floor right now.

The Suns got back into this game in the second half not because they picked up the defensive intensity, but because Indiana cooled off from its hot start. The Pacers shot just under 29 percent in the third quarter. Phoenix also took advantage of them on the offensive glass, scoring 12 second-chance points. Both Marcin Gortat and Sebastian Telfair had their jumpers going, combining for half the Suns’ points in the third. They also hooked up on a smooth pick-and-roll that looked just like Nash-to-Amare circa 2010 (if you squinted). The familiarity of that play and the ease with which Gortat scored undoubtedly left every Suns fan wondering why Phoenix doesn’t run more screen-and-roll from the top of the key.

Phoenix played tonight’s game without starting point guard Goran Dragic, who continues to recover from back and elbow injuries. Starting in his place, Sebastian Telfair played one of his best games in a Phoenix uniform (19 points and six assists in 41 minutes). Telfair’s strong play kept the Suns in this game and made sure rookie point guard Kendall Marshall was glued to the bench for the entire second half. Marshall was unremarkable in his seven minutes of play in the second quarter.

Late in the fourth quarter, the Suns’ offensive execution was non-existent and their poor defense came back to bite them. After taking an 83-81 lead with five minutes to play, the Pacers rattled off a 10-2 run that put the game out of reach for Phoenix. The Suns missed five straight jump shots and turned the ball over twice during that stretch while Indiana got into the paint with impunity and had David West hit two clutch shots.

Phoenix appears to have no set offense. Their attack consists of occasional pick-and-rolls, spot-up shooting, and 1-on-1 isolation. If the Suns are hitting their jump shots, like they were tonight, then they have a chance to win. But if the jumpers aren’t falling, they’re likely to get blown out because their offense produces very few easy baskets. Down the stretch, Indiana got into the paint through off-the-ball screens, purposeful penetration, and rapid ball movement. Phoenix’s offense looked like Stonehenge by comparison. After the Suns took the lead, the Pacers pounded the paint and earned 14 trips to the free-throw line. Phoenix took nine jump shots and earned only two free-throw attempts. That was the difference in this game. And execution disparities like this have been the difference in the Suns’ season.

Phoenix’s need for a go-to scorer has been written about at length on this site and others across the web. I for one don’t believe that is Phoenix’s greatest need. A “go-to” scorer would only encourage more isolation in crucial situations, which is the opposite of what the Suns should be doing. This team needs more designed plays, more ball movement, and more off-the-ball motion. The offense is painfully stagnant. Phoenix struggles for easy buckets, and scoring seems far too difficult given the talent on the roster.

If a change is to be made it has to come from the coaching staff and the players jointly. Alvin Gentry is used to coaching a free-flowing style of offense, but his savant conductor now wears purple and gold. It’s time to get more involved and take more control. At the same time, the players have to buy in to what Gentry is saying. If they resist, the plot that played out tonight in Indiana will repeat itself again and again before season’s end.

In the meantime, Phoenix has the second game of a back-to-back tomorrow night in Minnesota and a New Year’s Eve tilt in Oklahoma City on the horizon. The sun may not rise to a victory in Phoenix until 2013.

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