The “what” questions regarding the Phoenix Suns are easy. Alvin Gentry’s club not only doesn’t play 48 minutes of consistent basketball, but it splits that time within each game looking like two polar opposite squads.
That leads to the “why” questions.
The Suns fell to the Nets 99-79 in Brooklyn on Friday when one of their betters halves of the season was followed by easily the worst. Phoenix led 53-46 at the half and was shooting 54 percent from the floor before scoring 13 points in each of the third and fourth quarters to lose the second half, 53-26.
They finished the night shooting 39 percent from the floor after hitting 24 percent in the third and fourth quarters combined.
Jared Dudley led the way with 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting to go with five boards and four assists, but Phoenix didn’t have anyone who had the willingness to take over the game when the team needed a bucket the most.
Assisting on 14 of their 22 first-half makes, the Suns only recorded nine second-half makes on six assists after they reverted back to playing hero ball. At the front of it all was Shannon Brown, whose own polarity was showcased against a Brooklyn team that found an easy game despite a questionable Joe Johnson (illness) and a Deron Williams on one leg (thigh contusion).
Brown gave Phoenix a great boost in the first half, going 5-of-9 and scoring 13 points before hitting none of his six attempts after halftime. It’s not that Brown was to blame, but his production was a sign of what changed. It’s a hint at Phoenix’s issues.
At first, it was Goran Dragic causing trouble for Williams, matching up with him well on defense and getting into the lane, keeping his dribble alive and setting up perimeter options for his teammates via his own pass or by way of excellent ball movement. Eight of the nine Phoenix players who saw action in the first half had an assist.
And despite being outscored 28-13 in the third quarter, it wasn’t as if Brooklyn was running away in the game. With 1:22 left before the fourth quarter, the Suns only trailed 67-64, and though the momentum was sucked away, most teams would by no means be out of it.
But this team was out of it. Again, the “why” is encountered.
MarShon Brooks scored seven points in the final 1:08 of the third, and Brooklyn led 74-66 heading to the final period.
One reason for Phoenix’s struggles was the play of Dragic after a sound first half. Foul trouble ultimately took Dragic off the court with seven minutes left in the third, and it also hampered backup Sebastian Telfair and fouled out Luis Scola. The Nets drew twice as many fouls (30) as did the Suns (15), and eventually the odd pace sucked Phoenix’s rhythm away.
Microscopically, the pace and the foul trouble took Dragic, Phoenix’s key playmaker, out of a rhythm.
Without Dragic, the Suns looked lost. And when he returned, he did too. Phoenix didn’t score in the fourth quarter until 7:28 remained in the game, and Dragic’s lack of aggressiveness was missed when he returned at the beginning of the fourth quarter, especially when he was mismatched because of Williams’ dead leg.
In the end, all the failed play during the second half came down to a lack of energy, assertiveness and no willingness for any one player to do something with the ball. There were holes defensively, to be sure. Reggie Evans and Brook Lopez won the paint battle (46 to 32 points in the paint and 22 rebounds to 14 for the two Suns’ starting big men).
But it was Johnson attacking – or at least finding himself open – and earning himself 12 of his 19 total points in the second half, and Brooks scoring 11 of his 17 total points during that span to break the game open.
As for Phoenix? Brown and Scola took a team-high six shots each in the second half, combining for 2-of-12 shooting. Their willingness to shoot it at high volumes but low percentages isn’t the problem in itself. Rather, it was the result of an offense that lacks any player who can consistently score himself or set up the offense. That compounded Dragic’s 1-for-5 second half.
Furthermore, Andray Blatche burned the Phoenix bench. Despite Brown’s 13 first-half points and 15 total, the Nets’ bench outscored the Suns’ reserves, 45-28. Blatche’s 15 points – many by streaking by Markieff Morris after catching the ball from 20-feet out – said it all. Not only was Morris failing to stay in front of the talented, probably slower big man, but the Phoenix help defense failed to rotate.
Why should they expect the need to rotate and help against a driving 7-footer?
When the “why” questions are ones that shouldn’t be asked, then the answers might simply come down to a failure to show up in the second half.