The Phoenix Suns let a very winnable game slip through their fingers Wednesday night in New Orleans. They visibly ran out of gas down the stretch and succumbed to the Hornets 93-84.
Though the Suns have been light years better under Lindsey Hunter in terms of their effort and confidence, this team still has issues which a new coach cannot fix. Chief among them is depth. In European soccer, the most dominant and prestigious clubs like Barcelona and Manchester United carry upwards of 20 world class players on their rosters. All of these players cannot play in every match, but the clubs keep them on the roster at exorbitant cost because the season is long and grueling, and the players need rest. Squad depth allows for rotation, which in turn allows for rest and recovery. Depth allows these elite clubs to rely on different players to carry the load in each match.
All of this applies to the NBA as well, though players are considerably less likely to be cleated in the ankle on a basketball court. An 82 game schedule is incredibly rigorous. Asking any one player not named LeBron James to carry a team night in and night out is unreasonable. Players’ legs, no matter how young or old, get tired, especially in back-to-backs on the road. This was the case with Phoenix tonight. After a big win in Memphis yesterday evening, the Suns simply didn’t have the energy, stamina, or focus necessary to beat the Hornets, who were fresh off a five-day rest.
Most notable among the Suns who sputtered was Goran Dragic. The Dragon was nothing short of amazing last night, scoring 15 points in the final period to single-handedly top the Grizzlies for the second time this year. He continued his offensive production in the first half tonight, scoring 11 points on six shots. But he was terrible defensively. Greivis Vasquez torched Dragic for 15 first half points on 6-of-7 shooting. Dragic could not stay in front of Vasquez at all, and Vasquez single-handedly kept the Hornets close in the first half despite the struggles of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. In the second half, Dragic scored only two points. He was nearly invisible on offense, spending several possessions in a row standing in the corner, letting Kendall Marshall run the show. Whether it was exhaustion from an illness or continuing knee and elbow pain, he simply did not have it tonight, and the Suns had no one to pick up the slack.
For the first eight minutes of the game, it looked like Phoenix would cruise to victory behind a stellar performance by Luis Scola. Scola scored nine points in the opening period, all of them against No. 1 pick Anthony Davis. In college, Davis feasted on less athletic opponents and led the nation in blocks. On Wednesday, Scola showed him that he still has much to learn. Scola penetrated with ease past the Hornets’ prized big man. The only thing that stopped his impressive roll was an early substitution by Hunter, who was trying to get Jermaine O’Neal into the game earlier than normal as a way to help O’Neal engaged.
Scola played only 14 more minutes the rest of the game. It’s unclear if he was nursing an acute injury or just exhausted, but Scola only playing 22 minutes requires some sort of explanation. If he was up for it, the Suns could have used him as he was the only starter with a positive plus/minus (+3).
Filling in for Scola, Markieff Morris had a disappointing night. He led the team with a -12 plus/minus rating and was totally ineffective on both ends of the floor. On defense, he left Anderson open from downtown several times. He was slow to help when Vasquez or Al-Farouq Aminu penetrated. He and the rest of the Suns frontline allowed New Orleans to score 56 points in the paint which, even for Phoenix, is pretty awful. Offensively, he attempted only three shots in 26 minutes on the floor.
Morris has nights where his contribution puts the Suns over the top and secures a victory. Then he has nights like Wednesday when he’s totally ineffective. He can only contribute to this roster’s depth if he can be counted on consistently. At this point, he cannot.
In the end, proof of the Suns’ exhaustion and lack of effort can be found in the numbers. Phoenix’s scoring decreased in every quarter falling all the way to a pathetic 13 points in the fourth. After outrebounding the Hornets by 10 in the first half, the Suns lost the battle of the boards in the second half and gave up seven offensive rebounds. Three of those were grabbed by former Sun Robin Lopez, who looked healthy and spry with his new team. He and Aminu combined for 19 boards overall.
Despite all of that, Phoenix only trailed New Orleans by two points with six minutes to play. Sparked by Anderson’s third three of the night, the Hornets proceeded to go on a 13-2 run, which slammed the door shut on the Suns.
The last time Phoenix lost a game like this was at home to the Bucks. That was the night everyone within the organization and the fan base realized that Alvin Gentry could not carry the team any further. Tonight, the same thing is true. While Lindsey Hunter does have the team playing better, he can only do so much with this roster. This team is and will continue to be capable of beating better teams on any given night. But the Suns don’t have what it takes to play at that high level every night, which means sometimes they’re going to lose to the Hornets.
- The Hornets wore purple, green, and gold uniforms in honor of Mardi Gras. I, for one, hope they burn these jerseys before switching to the Pelicans.
- Mason Ginsberg, one of our fellow bloggers over at Hornets 247, wrote an interesting case for Robin Lopez as most improved player. Personally, I think his stiffest competition is his teammate, Greivis Vasquez.
- P.J. Tucker is impressive when handling the ball in transition. He may not be a huge threat to dribble penetrate in the half court offense, but on the break, he’s got handles.
- The Hornets have paid Eric Gordon over $54,000 per point this season. Still think their decision to match was bad for the Suns?