What keeps the Phoenix Suns from contending is not their ability to play top tier basketball. Their back-to-back victories over the Kings and Clippers showed they can win games and play at a high level. What stands in the Suns’ way is consistency. The team’s lack of consistency was on full display Sunday night. Phoenix gave an unspectacular effort and fell to an unspectacular Dallas Mavericks team, 110-95.
Don’t get me wrong. The Mavs are much better than their current record might indicate. They’ve won six of their last eight games. Dirk Nowitzki is finally healthy and integrated back into the team. They’re playing their best basketball of the season right now. But they’re still unspectacular. They’re still a long-shot for the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. And they’re not as good as the Clippers.
Just three nights ago, Phoenix beat the third-best team in the Western Conference. Sure, the Clippers were playing without Chris Paul, but even without CP3, Los Angeles is one of the most talented and deep teams in the league. And the Suns beat them in the second night of a back-to-back.
After a hard-fought defeat last night in San Antonio, the Suns were flat and uninspired in this game. The Mavericks made them pay, especially in the paint. In the first half, Dallas ran right down the Suns’ throats. While the box score says Dallas only scored 14 fastbreak points in the first two periods, that figure doesn’t account for the dozen or more pseudo-transition points. On at least five possessions, the Suns managed to stop the initial fastbreak, only to find themselves woefully out of position and unable to defend the wide-open looks the Mavericks’ next pass generated. For long stretches of this game, the Mavericks looked like the SSOL Suns of old, most notably Shawn Marion.
Marion, the former Sun, had 18 points on a season-high 19 shots. He got great looks at the hoop all night off of post ups, weakside cuts, and five offensive rebounds. He even got to hoist two of his patented “hot potato” three-pointers. Marion was a nightmare for the Suns’ defense. Even though age has slowed him down a step or two, he’s still more athletic and springy than everyone on the Suns roster save Shannon Brown and Michael Beasley. Typically, Phoenix would keep Marion off the glass and out of the paint by putting a big guy on him. But the Suns’ big men were forced to guard Nowitzki, Elton Brand, and Chris Kaman, allowing Marion to feed on Phoenix’s smaller defenders.
When the Suns tightened their defense in the second half, the Mavericks started to hit tough shots. Vince Carter and Nowitzki both hit several jumpers in the third quarter and early fourth with defenders draped all over them. On the night, Dallas shot 51% from the field. Phoenix had no answer for the Mavericks.
Dallas coach Rick Carlisle did not make it easy for Phoenix either. He planned tonight’s game like he was coaching the Dallas Stars. He subbed his players in and out frequently, keeping them on the court for short shifts. This ensured Dallas always had fresh legs on the floor which ultimately helped them run the Suns out of gas in the fourth quarter. Dallas’s lead had been as large as 20 points in the second quarter, but the Suns cut it to five with 11 minutes to play. Then Dallas reeled off a 19-5 run that slammed the door on Phoenix for good. Dallas’ uber-quick point guard combo of Darren Collison and Rodrigue Beaubois kept the tempo high all night long.
The Suns’ biggest mistake in this game was trying to play Dallas’ pace. The strategy seemed to work for stretches as Phoenix scored 27 fastbreak points, most of them in two long runs Phoenix went on to cut the lead down to single digits. But Phoenix did not have the stamina to keep up the pace for all 48 minutes, and thus the Mavs buried them with it.
Also hurting the Suns offensively was the Mavericks use of a zone defense. Phoenix was an abysmal 4-of-17 from downtown. Two of those makes came from Kendall Marshall who, it should be noted, badly airballed his first attempt. Dragic and Jared Dudley were ice cold from outside. Dragic, however, kept the game from getting truly out of hand by getting to the rim at will and dishing out some highlight assists.
Dragic continued his current hot streak with 18 points and eight dimes, including a few round-the-back passes that drew audible respect from the Dallas crowd. Collison is quick, but Dragic made it very clear that Collison could not handle him defensively. The Mavs made adjustments and brought larger defenders to help out on Dragic. This translated to Dragic taking several hard hits and tumbles, though no flagrant fouls were called. If Dragic is going to take “Dwyane Wade in 2006” levels of punishment the rest of this season, the Suns may need to put in a call to the league office asking for referees to protect him a bit more. If defenders keep taking their shots at him without getting hit in their wallet, Dragic is going to be watching games in street clothes before this year is over.
Michael Beasley had a decent game with 12 points in 20 minutes. There has been a noticeable change in his shot selection. The three-ball seems to be a secondary option now as he penetrates into the paint on nearly every catch. This is good news for the Suns as Beasley continues to develop in his role of an off-the-bench dynamic scorer.
Luis Scola and Marcin Gortat combined for 22 points and 12 boards, but the pace of the game forced the Suns to go small and kept these two from playing many minutes together.
This game is further proof that the Suns are talent-lacking right now. It’s necessary for too many players to have above-average games for them to win. They are more than capable of great performances, as we saw last week, but more often than not, they’re going to come up short.
The upside, if there is any upside to be had after two straight losses, is that the team is definitely playing harder under Lindsey Hunter. There is more hustle on defensive rotations, more off-the-ball movement and more fight. But without talent and consistency, hustle and fight alone won’t get you far in the NBA.