Loss to Nets provides lessons for Suns

PHOENIX — Jeff Hornacek isn’t blaming late-game execution for the Phoenix Suns’ last two losses, both of which came in the final seconds of regulation and overtime, respectively. The first real bumps of a long season came nine games in, but it’s not necessarily a sign that opponents have figured out the Suns just yet.

After all, it’s not easy to stop a young, athletic team whose defense is the last of the problems so far.

Phoenix has been in every game, but a 100-98 overtime loss Friday to the Brooklyn Nets included the first signs of offensive inconsistencies that went beyond hot-and-cold shooting. Brooklyn seemed stumped by the run-and-gun Suns but bridging the two halves went on a 20-0 run. It came down to poor defense allowing no runouts off rebounds, but the lull for the Suns also wasn’t aided by the offense.

“Every third quarter, we come out slacking,” Eric Bledsoe said afterward. “We kind of stopped pushing the ball. It was all on us.”

Bledsoe scored 13 of his 15 points in the second quarter, but he often times looked lost playing off the ball as Goran Dragic finally finished a game. While both guards thrive with the ball in their hands, Hornacek admitted that Bledsoe is still figuring things out when Dragic is running the show.

It showed early in the third quarter. Hornacek started Markieff Morris in place of Channing Frye to get a boost, but that didn’t do much. Bledsoe, Morris and Miles Plumlee — who was getting torched by Brook Lopez off pick-and-rolls — were replaced with Channing Frye, Marcus Morris and Gerald Green. With that trio along with Dragic and P.J. Tucker, things settled and shots finally began falling.

They fell because the ball movement finally ratcheted up. Bledsoe was at the forefront of a passive offense. He caught the ball swinging his way and hesitated before taking a few dribbles and then, more often than not, passed the ball anyway. Bledsoe said he was simply playing off Dragic, but that’s not going to fly for a player with those skills and whose free agent stock is rising quickly.

“If nobody’s hot, you have to play as a team,” Dragic said, in a way hinting he was not the hot hand Bledsoe alluded to. “Try to make the open shot from those actions. We didn’t do that tonight in the third quarter and I think that cost us the game.”

Hornacek said over-thinking kills — and that might be Bledsoe’s issue.

“When we come off the pick-and-roll and we hit that big, we’re hesitating,” the coach said. “We’re looking around. ‘Do I shoot it? No. I’ll pass it to the other side and they’ll set a screen.’

“That stuff all has to be done quicker,” Hornacek added. “As soon as a guy is throwing the ball, the ball’s in the air, you should know if it’s a shot or not. If it’s not, just catch it and hit the guy on the wing; the guy on the wing has to pop open and you’re right in to another pick-and-roll.”

P.J. Tucker knows darn well when to shoot, even though he’s still working hard to become a consistent shooter. On Friday, Tucker scored 17 points, grabbed key offensive rebounds down the stretch and hit a big corner-three off a Dragic pass that helped to send the game into overtime. That shot was exactly what the Suns offense wants — penetrate, kick and have the shooter ready to fling it.

“I knew Goran was going to pass it,” Tucker said. “He was going to the left, and my man went in, I knew it was coming. So I was already set. I already knew it was going in. When you get that good of a look, you got to knock it down.”

Tucker said the offensive lull between the two halves was simply about poor execution. There was little ball movement, few set screens and too much isolation. Add it up, and the Suns were forced into late pick-and-roll, or worse, isolation situations that went awry.

It’s that execution that needs fixing. The late-game stuff? Hornacek preaches that those go in your favor at a 50-50 rate in the NBA.

The Suns don’t want to be in those positions in the first place.

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