PHOENIX — When the Phoenix Suns opened their season, it’s doubtful they expected many nights in which P.J. Tucker would lead them in scoring.
Yet in their latest example of offensive ineptitude, Tucker was about the only Sun to shoot well, as the Memphis Grizzlies’ mighty defense smothered the rest of the Suns on their way to a 92-81 victory, Phoenix’s eighth loss in nine games.
“We really could never get anything going really,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “We got bogged down offensively and struggled to make shots. Had some tough turnovers and never really got any kind of rhythm. We were partly responsible for that, but they did a great job defensively also.”
It ended up being a career scoring night for Tucker with his 17 points on 6-for-11 shooting, but he could hardly take any pride in that with Jermaine O’Neal being the only other Sun to make more than half his shots while Luis Scola shot 3-for-12, Shannon Brown 3-for-9 and Markieff Morris 2-for-8.
Phoenix’s usual engine Goran Dragic struggled along with the rest of his teammates with just two points before pouring in seven in the final four minutes once Memphis had already taken an insurmountable advantage. Jared Dudley didn’t even play in the fourth quarter after Tony Allen helped limit him to just 1-for-3 shooting in the first three periods.
The Suns brought their cold shooting over from the last three quarters of Friday’s tilt as they have now averaged 18.6 points per quarter on 37.5 percent shooting these past seven quarters after going for 24.6 a quarter on 47.6 percent marksmanship their previous 21. They also scored a porous 90.1 points per 100 possessions overall for this game.
The Suns have now been held to 81 points or fewer in consecutive games for the first time since Jan. 17-19, 2005, and yes, those games came during Phoenix’s six-game losing streak sans Nash that propelled him to his first of two MVPs.
The starters and reserves were equally ineffective with the starters shooting 40.8 percent and the reserves 36.7 percent, and this came with the inefficient Michael Beasley receiving a DNP-CD.
“It was just a night where they did a good job defensively and we didn’t shoot the ball well,” Gentry said. “They do a great job of playing on ball, and then they really play tight defense. You’ve got to be strong with the ball and you’ve got to set good screens. They just really got us out of anything that we were trying to do.”
Added Tucker, “We struggled offensively. We’ve got to find a way to put the ball in the basket. We’ve just got to find a way to get it done.”
Even with the West’s most efficient defense locking them up all game, the Suns still trailed by just six 31 seconds into the fourth quarter when they forced Memphis turnovers on a ridiculous five consecutive possessions.
Yet it was fitting for a game like this that the Suns could not shave a single point off the Grizzlies’ lead in this time, and Memphis soon exploded on a 15-5 run to put the game out of reach.
“That’s when we thought it [would happen],” Tucker said. “I was on the bench there, and I thought, ‘Here we go, we’re going to make a run,’ and we couldn’t get it in the basket. We couldn’t score. We were right there as always, we just couldn’t finish it off.”
The game did see Wes Johnson’s inaugural journey into the Suns’ rotation in place of Beasley. To some degree this could be seen as a move of Gentry grasping at straws and being willing to try anything, but in the place the Suns are at, why not?
Johnson drilled a couple three-pointers, blocked Rudy Gay in transition and overall looked like a guy who could play a role on this basketball team.
“I thought he did a good job,” Gentry said. “He made a couple of shots for us. You know it is the first time that he has played, guys. So we just figured that we should give him an opportunity to see what he can do. I thought he was pretty good defensively. I thought he did a good job on Rudy when he was in there and he made a couple of shots for us. So we will use him and see if he can help us out.”
Johnson had no idea Gentry would call his number tonight, but he said he’s continued to prepare for this opportunity every day at practice. He felt he got some of his early season jitters out tonight and that he can build on a performance like this.
However, it isn’t easy for a guy two and a half years removed from being the No. 4 overall pick to ride the pine all season on a struggling team.
“You just really can’t think about it too much,” Johnson said. “It is frustrating a little bit, but you can’t really let that bother you. Just come out there and be prepared. You’ve got to be a professional about it. Whenever you do get your number called, go out there and play.”
The Suns have now lost eight of nine after a brief four-game winning streak that followed a seven-game losing streak for an overall 5-15 mark since a 7-8 start.
This franchise has fought mediocrity in three of the past four seasons, but an organization that will soon become the fourth fastest to win 2,000 games (I think it’s soon) isn’t used to years like this at the bottom of the league’s standings.
Gentry’s message to the team is that first they must stay together. He understands the easiest thing to do is to point fingers and fragment, but along with Dudley he vows not to let that happens. Furthermore, Gentry said the players must believe in themselves, which can’t be easy after such a rough stretch.
“We have to believe that we can get this turned around and we’ve got to believe we can make a positive out of this,” Gentry said. “We’re not just going to play out the season or anything like that. We’re going to continue to work at it.
“We have to try different people, do different things. We’re in a bad situation, we’re in a bad spot right now, but the thing about this league is that the only one that can dig us out is ourselves.
“We have to do it within our team, and we have to be committed to each other, and we have to be committed to getting it turned around.”
It’s noble for the Suns’ coach to continue to preach such optimism, but with a brutal upcoming schedule it won’t be easy for Gentry to keep this team from fragmenting and tumbling further down the standings.
The Grizzlies outscored the Suns 19-1 on fast-break points. Seven Seconds or Less seems like a long, long time ago.