Basketball games are like boxing matches. Teams trade buckets like boxers trade jabs. A few times per round, one team lands a haymaker, and while that big play may not be a knockout blow, the big punches start to add up as the game wears on. Eventually the team on the receiving end of those big shots loses the ability to fight back. This was the storyline in the Phoenix Suns’ 107-94 loss to the Atlanta Hawks Friday night.
Before the opening bell of the bout, boxing referees always tell both fighters, “Protect yourself at all times.” The Suns failed to heed that warning and left themselves unprotected in three key areas. First, they turned the ball over 24 times. Atlanta took complete advantage of their carelessness by scoring 29 fast break points (Phoenix managed only five of their own.) Second, the Suns gave the Hawks wide open look after wide open look from three. Atlanta finished the night 12-of-23 from beyond the arc. Third, the Suns missed 10 of their 31 free throws. Phoenix could have recovered from one of these breakdowns, but these three failures in concert were too much for the Suns to overcome.
Despite shooting nearly 49% from the field and over 50% from downtown, the Hawks weren’t stellar in this game. Atlanta was almost as sloppy with the ball as Phoenix, turning it over 20 times. The Hawks were also out rebounded despite Phoenix missing their leading rebounder, Marcin Gortat. What Atlanta did do was hang with the Suns and take advantage of their mistakes. There were two key sequences in particular which hurt Phoenix and propelled the Hawks to victory.
Halfway through the second quarter, the Suns trailed by just two points after a Jermaine O’Neal dunk. Phoenix then missed their next five shots as the Hawks reeled off an 11-2 run capped off by wide open three by Kyle Korver, who hit 4-of-5 from downtown. That run stunned the Suns as they headed into the locker room and squandered the 18 minutes of good basketball they had played up to that point.
Phoenix would cut the lead back down to five halfway through the third quarter, but once again they allowed the Hawks to close the frame on a big run. This time the Suns went four and a half minutes without a field goal while the Hawks reeled off a 12-3 run.
These huge lapses may have been a product of the new rotation Coach Lindsey Hunter used in this game. The Suns starting five – Jermaine O’Neal, the Morris twins, Wes Johnson, and Dragic – had played only four minutes together before tonight’s game. While this lineup might be Phoenix’s most athletic, it struggled to keep up with the Hawks from the start of this game. If not for Dragic’s 10 first quarter points, the Suns would most certainly have been down double digits early.
Dragic was the sole bright spot for the Suns. He looked to score aggressively throughout and got to the cup at will against Devin Harris and Jeff Teague. Nights like tonight are why the Suns signed the Dragon this offseason. The issue for Phoenix is that Goran isn’t the kind of player who can propel this team to victory on his own. When no one else other than Dragic steps up offensively, the Suns are going to lose nine times out of ten.
The Morris twins were ice cold from the opening tip. Though Markieff eventually found his shot as the game wore on, Marcus appeared lost every minute he was on the court. The benefit of playing these two together is supposed to be their offensive chemistry, but there was none to behold tonight.
Defensively, the twins waver between below-average and totally useless. In the first half, Josh Smith abused them both for 13 points on just eight shots. In the second half, Al Horford, who had struggled early, found his stroke and dropped 12 points in 15 minutes. No matter how well the twins can play offensively, they won’t qualify as pieces the Suns can build around until they improve as defenders.
Elsewhere in the frontcourt, Jermaine O’Neal had a big scoring night, netting 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting, but the bulk of his production was nullified by the Suns third quarter scoring drought. O’Neal is a very talented scorer in the post, but once the ball goes into him down there, the Suns’ offense totally stagnates. So while he get buckets down low, his ball-stopping may be hurting Phoenix in the grand scheme of things by taking them out of rhythm.
Off the bench, Kendall Marshall had a very forgettable evening missing all four of his three-point attempts. His shot is an absolute mess right now. Likewise, Michael Beasley could not find his groove and finished the night 3-for-9.
For the Suns, this result has become the norm. Like a young contender getting his first title shot, Phoenix can hang with their opponent for a few rounds and even look like they belong in the ring. But when the other team goes on a run, the Suns get exposed and crumble. I’m sure there are more victories to be had this season, but they will unpredictable and few. At this point, the Suns simply need too many things to go right to get a W, and that’s just not in the cards every time out.
- Robert Sarver and Lance Blanks sat courtside for the Arizona Wildcats 66-64 Pac-12 Tournament loss to the UCLA Bruins in Las Vegas.
- Former Suns’ Assistant Dan Majerle is the new head coach at Grand Canyon University.