PHOENIX — Goran Dragic knifed through the lane uncontested for easy bucket after easy bucket. He even settled for several jump shots outside the lane and hit those as well.
Unfortunately, Dragic’s 20-plus-point performance came in warm-ups, as the Phoenix Suns decided to rest their starting point guard for the second consecutive night. With Dragic and center Jermaine O’Neal reduced to pine duty, the Suns earned the same result – desired or not – as their previous four games: a loss.
While the Sacramento Kings came to US Airways Center Thursday also playing the second game of a back-to-back, Keith Smart’s squad seemed far more interested in winning than gaining position in June’s draft lottery. Propelled by both a dominate performance from DeMarcus Cousins and an 18-4 run to end the first half, the Kings ran away from Phoenix en route to a 117-103 victory – their sixth over the last 10 games.
“I think our effort was there tonight, but I think our execution wasn’t,” Suns interim head coach Lindsey Hunter said. “I think guys had mental lapses at times on different coverages and it resulted in them scoring at certain, crucial times when we had the game manageable to get a little closer.
“We made timely mistakes on rotations. Just the small things. Part of it is just because those guys haven’t played much together. You know inexperience plays a part in it, but that is just what we have to work on.”
Cousins scored 15 of his season-high 34 points in the final 3:48 of the first quarter and treated the underwhelming Valley crowd to an array of dunks, post moves and jumpers over the ineffective arms of Hamed Haddadi and Markieff Morris.
“I just feel like I got it going early,” Cousins said. “My jump shot was falling and with (the Suns) giving me my jump shot and hitting it, it helped the rest of my game. It was fun.”
Before Thursday’s game, Hunter lauded Sacramento point guard Isaiah Thomas for his fearless ability to get to the basket. Thomas lived up to the praise and made a night out of carving up Kendall Marshall inside the three-point arc. Marshall, who was making his second career start, was consistently a step slow and the former Washington standout took full advantage.
In a “complimentary” role to Cousins, Thomas finished with 23 points and eight assists – a stat line Phoenix’s rookie point guard didn’t take lightly.
“In extended minutes you’ve got to make sure you’re consistent over 48 minutes,” Marshall said. “You can’t make four or five great plays and then make two horrible plays. There are 82 games in a season and you have to be consistent in that period time.
“I have to work to play at that consistent level, whether it’s setting up my teammates for shots or keeping the ball in front of me at the defensive end.”
Outside of the individual performances of Cousins and Thomas, who were not held out despite Sacramento’s abysmal record, Thursday night looked exactly like what it was: a 48-minute exhibition between two teams going nowhere fast.
The contest at times had the feel of a college intramural game: frenetic pace, little to no defense, plenty of turnovers, notable scoring spurts and not a whole heck of a lot on the line.
“It’s tough (to play without Dragic or O’Neal), but to be honest despite what it might seem like, I feel like guys are trying to win games out there,” said Marshall, who became the first Suns rookie to record 10 or more assists in consecutive games since Negele Knight in April 1991. “We’re competing, but we still have mental lapses. I don’t think that means we’re not trying to win or we don’t have good energy. That’s just something we’ve struggled with all year.”
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the short-handed Suns. P.J. Tucker (stifled Tyreke Evans and scored 18 points), Michael Beasley (14 points and eight rebounds) and Luis Scola (25 points and seven rebounds) seemed genuinely involved in the game’s outcome. However, Hunter was hard-pressed to find much out of any of his other players when it came to defensive intensity or toughness on the glass.
Although the Suns appear to be writing the blueprint on how to simply play out an 82-game season, swingman Wesley Johnson still believes there is plenty to play for that won’t show up in the standings.
“There’s always something to play for,” said Johnson, who had his third straight double-digit scoring effort Thursday. “Every guy in here is playing for something. It’s not about just playing for wins and losses. There’s a bigger goal than that. Everybody in here is always going to go and compete, and we’re not going to just lay down just because we have eight or nine games left.”
- With Thursday’s loss, the Suns secured their first 50-loss season since 2003-04. That season, Phoenix went 29-53 before retooling its roster with the likes of Steve Nash and Quentin Richardson.
- Following two losses without Goran Dragic, the Suns still find themselves with the fourth-worst record in the NBA. While Phoenix is just half a game behind the Cavaliers, its cause has not been helped by the fact that both Cleveland and Orlando are both on losing streaks of six and eight games respectively.
- Keith Smart and Co. pulled off a rare win in Phoenix. How rare? Before Thursday night’s victory, Sacramento had just one win in its past 13 appearances at US Airways Center.