Sacramento Kings 121, Phoenix Suns 112 -- Bring on the lottery

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DeMarcus Cousins drives on Suns' center Hamed Haddadi (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

DeMarcus Cousins drives on Suns’ center Hamed Haddadi (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

It’s going to be a long 20 games.

The Phoenix Suns lost a shootout to the Sacramento Kings 121-112 at the Sleep Train Arena on Friday. The Suns fell in this game because of a complete lack of defense and some understandable but frustrating offensive confusion. If this is how the final fourth of the season is destined to go, it could be a painful five and half weeks for everyone in the Valley of the Sun.

This game was the Suns’ first in the last 138 without starting center Marcin Gortat. In his absence, head coach Lindsey Hunter trotted out a brand new starting lineup featuring the Morris twins at the forward spots, Wesley Johnson at shooting guard, and Luis Scola at center. This unit had issues right from the outset.

Though he is undeniably a world-class headcase, DeMarcus Cousins is also an absolute beast when he wants to be. The Kings’ big man had 10 points and five boards in the first quarter and ended his night with 22 and 10. While Gortat may not be a great defender, his presence is a better shot deterrent than anything the Morris twins and Scola could muster against Cousins. No one in a Suns’ uniform could move him out of the paint. The only thing that kept him from going for 30+ points was foul trouble and his temper.

In the second half, the Suns’ packed the paint to prevent DeMarcus from doing further damage. That’s when Sacramento’s gunners took over. Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Thornton, and Tyreke Evans combined to go 9-of-11 from downtown in the second half. For the game, Sacramento shot better from three (13-27) than the Suns did from the field (43-90). The Kings could not miss down the stretch. They answered every time the Suns whittled the lead down to one possession. Perimeter defense has been a huge weakness for Phoenix all season, but it was especially atrocious in this game. The Kings’ guards are quick off the dribble and not afraid to pull up and shoot. On nights when they’re not making shots, a slow perimeter team like the Suns has no chance of stopping them.

When a Phoenix defender did close out, Sacramento’s guards got into the lane with ease. On the night, the Kings had 56 points in the paint. Combine that with their 39 points from downtown and 18 from the free throw line, and nearly all of Sacramento’s points are accounted for. The Suns were atrocious defensively and that glaring deficiency, as much as any other need this team has, must be addressed by the front office in the offseason. Even if the Suns land a star player this summer, they’ll have no hope of contending unless they find some role players more committed and capable on defense.

Jermaine O’Neal’s missed the game to be with his daughter who underwent successful heart surgery. His absence gave Hamed Haddadi another shot at some playing time. The big man from Iran was a bit timid, getting the ball stripped by smaller players more than once. On the positive side he grabbed four rebounds, blocked three shots, and hit both of his free throws in just 10 minutes.

Offensively, the Suns had a decent shooting night. Each of the five starters shot exactly 50 percent from the field. Phoenix’s issues in this game had more to do with organization than execution.

For some reason, sliding to the center spot made Luis Scola very uncomfortable. He was tentative with his jumper. Because of the way Sacramento guarded him, Scola found himself open on the baseline more than once, but never pulled the trigger on his jumper. Though he scored effectively around the hoop and got Cousins into foul trouble, this team can’t afford to have Scola passing up open shots.

The Morris twins were plenty aggressive, driving the baseline for dunks and elevating over defenders for jump shots. While their defense is still very much a work in progress, their comfort and awareness when on the court together has caused a marked improvement in both their games.

On the perimeter, Wesley Johnson’s shot looked good once again. He’s shooting the ball more confidently right now than he has at any point in the season. He appears to be the Wes Johnson we heard so much about in training camp. The next 20 games will have a huge impact on his career and his future in Phoenix.

The same can be said for Michael Beasley who dropped 24 points against Sacramento after an eight-game string of forgettable performances. Gortat’s injury will put Michael right back into the rotation and give him yet another chance to prove himself. As has been the case all year, the more his offense involves driving towards the basket instead of settling for jumpers, the better off both he and the Suns will be.

Goran Dragic had another Dragic game posting 17 points and 16 assists. The Dragon was efficient, aggressive, and speedy despite a sore back. He has now dished out double-digit assists in six of the last nine games. With the improved play of the Morris twins and Johnson, Dragic has no shortage of options to pass the ball to. For the remainder of this season, the area he must improve is organization. Whether he is comfortable as a vocal leader or not, this team needs him to be a floor general. While he’s not Chris Paul or even Cliff Paul, the Suns won’t improve unless Dragic is willing to yell at his teammates and get them in the right places, making the right decisions. He is constantly surrounded by youth, and while he’s still very young himself, his paycheck and position demand that he assert himself like a veteran.

There is a small silver lining for games like tonight’s: lottery balls. The Suns won’t actively tank. Nor should they. But if personnel decisions cause them to lose shootouts to other cellar-dwelling teams like the Kings, so be it. More lottery balls for Phoenix.

The Suns are back at it tomorrow night against the hot-shooting Houston Rockets. If they defend James Harden and Company the way they defended tonight, more than a few NBA records could fall.

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