PHOENIX – Lindsey Hunter spent the time after his team’s embarrassing loss to the Boston Celtics running his players through intense practice, and he treated Sunday’ night’s game against the San Antonio Spurs as an in-house scrimmage, running through a 12-man rotation.
A few days after he said the Suns didn’t get respect from the Boston Celtics, the theme arose once again in a 97-87 loss to the Spurs. Sure, Phoenix displayed more resiliency and a refreshing effort, but the frustrations within the game still lent evidence that the Suns have the tallest of mountains to climb. There are no moral victories when 18-39.
Take the matchup between Manu Ginobili and P.J. Tucker as an example.
The Spurs sixth made baited Tucker’s aggressive defense several times. In the first half, a three-point attempt by Ginobili on the left wing drew a foul from Tucker, who contested the shot but drew a flailing sell from the crafty Argentinian. Tucker, hit with the foul, was also hit in the face by Ginobili’s arm. Later on, Tucker was called for two consecutive fouls while getting into Ginobili’s body, the second time getting an elbow to the chest from Ginobili on a jab-step.
“That’s part of the game,” Hunter said. “That’s why they hang banners. Until we get that type of respect and earn that type of respect that’s what’s going to happen. I don’t make excuses for that. He’s earned those calls. So until we get to that level, we have to keep fighting, challenging him until we get those calls.”
And if it weren’t for a second-quarter burst, perhaps the Suns would be in the game. The starting unit played well, with Dragic tearing up the Spurs defense for six first-quarter assists, and the pick-and-roll game with Gortat appearing as useful as it has been all season. Gortat had eight points in the first, six off Dragic assists.
“He’s such a big part of what we do, and he facilitates for everybody and has been playing really, really well,” Hunter said. “The times he struggles, we struggle.”
Dragic’s production tailed off, and he hit just 3-of-14 shots. He had 10 points, 11 assists and five turnovers while Gortat played his most inspired ball in some time with 21 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks.
Phoenix led 21-19 before a three-minute burst at the start of the second quarter gave San Antonio 14 straight points against the Suns’ bench. San Antonio had a 33-21 lead before Kendall Marshall, Wes Johnson and Michael Beasley were benched. In that brief period, Stephen Jackson got under Johnson’s skin before switching to Beasley, and Johnson reacted by forcing an off-balance airball fadeaway. Marshall threw a ball away after getting caught up in the air, and Beasley fouled a three-point shooter and came down awkwardly in the same play. Those three players didn’t play more than five minutes each.
“I think we had three minutes where it was one thing after another and when you play a team like they they capitalize,” Hunter said.
After the Suns held the Spurs to 36.8 percent shooting in the first quarter, they allowed San Antonio to hit 70.6 from the floor in the second. The Spurs only shot 44.4 percent from the floor on the evening, but they also adjusted to play the pick-and-roll better as the game wore on.
With Nando de Colo starting in place of Tony Parker, the Spurs only got 10 points from Tim Duncan and 12 from Ginobili, but six players total scored in double-figures with third-string point guard Patty Mills and Kawhi Leonard leading San Antonio with 16 points in the game.
“When they take things away,” said Jared Dudley, “they have second, third options and they move the ball.”
Phoenix trailed by as many as 19 points in the second before chipping away at the lead. Heading into the second half, the Suns trailed 54-40.
The long rotation put Johnson, Beasley and Marshall on the bench in the second half while Marcus Morris and Diante Garrett took most of their minutes. And the list of Suns who played – everyone active sans Shannon Brown – was in part due to a fairly aggressive press that the Suns implemented in the second half.
It didn’t help Phoenix’s offensive struggles, however. As a team, the Suns shot 37 percent from the floor and turned the ball over 20 times. Once the Dragic-Gortat pick-and-roll was solved by San Antonio, there wasn’t much left.
Hunter said the team will continue to practice with “a sense of urgency” until the players show it in game action. It appeared on Sunday with Phoenix making a small push late in the fourth quarter against a significantly better team.
And there were signs – small ones – that maybe they were earning some of that coveted respect.
Go back to the Ginobili-Tucker dynamic. On one fastbreak, Tucker powered through an attempted Ginobili charge to score against contact. That earned a no-call. And when there were times that Tucker had calls against him, well, his complaints didn’t earn him a technical.
Though it’s a basic starting point to change a culture, as Hunter often puts it, those are relatively insignificant victories. Insignificant — so are these Suns in the NBA landscape, as the game against the best team in the league conveyed.
“There is no moral victories for me,” Dudley said. “For the most part, I think guys, we’re trying our best and we’re trying to find ways to stop the bleeding but it’s been tough.”