Preview: Phoenix Suns (21-40) at Sacramento Kings (21-42)

Time: 8 p.m.


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PHOENIX – Save the debate about the Phoenix Suns’ lack of a tank job for later. Soon enough, it might not be an issue at all.

When the Suns fell 98-71 to the previously struggling Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, the clear turn of events came after Marcin Gortat left the game with what could be a season-ending foot sprain. And with Jermaine O’Neal out and spending time with his daughter, the lack of a true center outside Hamed Haddadi is more than a serious issue.

Phoenix faces the Sacramento Kings on Friday in an ever-important road game for only the sake of the NBA draft lottery, and unless the Suns find a gameplan on offense without two of their most important offensive options, they appear likely to begin even more of a freefall.

Beginning in the second quarter on Wednesday, the Suns simply had no offense for either the starting unit or the bench. Was it simply an injury that caught the coaching staff off guard? Lindsey Hunter said it wasn’t necessarily Gortat’s injury that sent Phoenix into a tailspin, though that comment is likely just coachspeak.

“It seemed deflated from the jump ball to me,” Hunter said despite his team only trailing by four in a decent first quarter. “I think having (Gortat) would have been, of course, a big help. We cannot look at that as an excuse.”

But it might be unavoidable to point to the loss of Gortat as Phoenix’s doom — relative doom, as they now face a better shot to move up in the draft lottery. Though the defense looked poor at times, the Suns struggled because they put themselves in bad positions with 29 turnovers as players admitted afterward that nobody knew what to do; that aided the Raptors’ own offense. Even point guard Goran Dragic looked flat after showing a promising growth with Gortat in the pick-and-roll game.

So there’s now an onus on Hunter and offensive assistant Igor Kokoskov to cook up a plan around Dragic and perhaps Luis Scola. There’s not much else to work with. The frightening reality is of a final 19 games without their starter center – and for the time being, no O’Neal to throw the ball to in the post.

“We still can go small,” Dragic said. “We can pressure the ball more, we can be more aggressive.”

Not that the Suns have much other choice. Scola could see time at center along with Markieff Morris, while Marcus Morris and Michael Beasley will see extended minutes. Beasley especially could use the opportunity to find himself. After he came on strong following Hunter’s hire, the eccentric nature has led to a 10-game stretch of averaging 5.6 points on 32 percent shooting. He’s lost rotation time to Marcus Morris, who has scored in double-digits in each of his last three games.

Either way, how Phoenix matches up with DeMarcus Cousins (assuming they can’t get under his skin mentally) and Jason Thompson is an issue on Friday night. Even though the Kings have lost nine of their last 11, they’re still the five-point favorite.

And taking a wider view of the Suns, it’s hard to imagine Hunter and his staff have a stable enough ground even to simply build a foundation at this point. That won’t stop them from trying.

“This is part of the process,” Hunter said after the loss to the Raptors. “This is part of trying to mature a team to understand what it takes, how hard you have to practice, how hard you have to play, and how focused you have to be.

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