Sacramento Kings 107, Phoenix Suns 104 -- Another late lead squandered

The Suns are the only team in the NBA to hold a lead in the fourth quarter of every game they’ve played this year. But Phoenix, playing without their closer Eric Bledsoe, failed to hold the lead once again, succumbing to the Sacramento Kings 107-104 in a very frenetic game. Bledsoe, who is suffering from a bruised shin, was a late scratch from the lineup. In his absence, the Suns got valiant performances from fill-in starter Gerald Green, as well Marcus Morris and Archie Goodwin off the bench. Green had a season-high 23 points and went 4-of-8 from downtown. Marcus’ jump shot was clicking as he dropped in 19 points. And Goodwin had a breakout performance which will surely garner him more playing time. He had 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting and was a force in transition.

But for the all the contributions the Suns got from unlikely sources, they had no answer on defense for DeMarcus Cousins. Boogie looked nearly unstoppable in this game, ending the night with 27 points and 12 rebounds. Both Miles Plumlee and Channing Frye were abused all night long by the Kings’ franchise big man. Had he not knicked up his shoulder in the second quarter, Cousins might have had 40 in this one. He was a bit slower in the second half.

The Kings were also led by backup point guard Isaiah Thomas, who leads the NBA in bench scoring. Thomas was a force on both ends, scoring 19 points thanks primarily to his blazing speed and forcing several turnovers on defense.

This was a game of runs, like every other Suns game this year. After a 9-2 run, the Suns led 104-97 with three minutes to play. They didn’t score another point. Isaiah Thomas hounded Dragic defensively and forced him into turnovers on two different possessions with less than a minute to go. Jeff Hornacek brought in Ish Smith to help alleviate the Thomas pressure, but Isaiah picked his pocket for another Suns turnover. Even with all their miscues, the Suns still had a shot to win the game at the buzzer, but Marcus Morris’ corner three came up short.

Don’t let Bledsoe’s absence fool you, the Suns have no halfcourt offense whatsoever. This has been evident for several games. The only points they generate when they’re not fast breaking are on 1-on-1 drives by Bledsoe or Dragic or threes off of ball rotation. That’s why this Phoenix team struggles to score in the clutch when the game slows down and there’s nowhere to run.

In addition, the Suns cannot guard physically dominant big men like Cousins. Plumlee is tough and Frye is a crafty veteran, but neither of them could keep Boogie out of the paint. When they did try to double-team Cousins, Phoenix’s guards did not rotate to the basket. This allowed Sacramento to find their other big for an easy bucket time after time. These two shortcomings are what will ultimately limit the Suns’ win total this year. They have the talent to win games, but as of yet, they have no way to close them.

For more analysis, let’s answer Kevin Zimmerman’s preview questions.

Will Ben McLemore make Suns fans complain about Alex Len?

The short answer is yes. Looking at the box score, McLemore had 19 points and Len had zero in just five minutes of play. But a simple “yes” doesn’t fully answer the question. Believe me, there were times when McLemore was on the court and Len was on the bench that Len looked like the better player. McLemore, the seventh pick in the 2013 NBA draft, hit four of his ten attempts from downtown. The four that went in hit nothing but net. The six that missed weren’t even close. He airballed back-to-back attempts in the second quarter. McLemore is the player we thought he would be: streaky, athletic, and very raw. Sometimes he looks great and other times he looks D-League bound. He’s got a long way to go as a pro, but he’s certainly off to a better start than Len.

That said, Suns’ fans shouldn’t complain too much because their own rookie Archie Goodwin totally outshined McLemore when they were on the court together. Goodwin brought the hostile crowd to its feet with steals and breakaway dunks on consecutive possessions in the second quarter. Offensively, he looked silky. He got to the rim at will and was a huge reason the Suns were able to turn an 8-point first quarter deficit into a 13-point lead midway through the second quarter. He hit 7-of-10 from the field and played stellar defense on McLemore, totally taking him out of the game.

As for Len, it’s good news that he was able to return from injury this early, but he is still totally lost mentally on the court. And the rookie needs to put on some serious weight if he’s going to bang in the paint.

Does Eric Bledsoe look more comfortable alongside a healthy Goran Dragic?

Bledsoe’s bruised shin kept him out of this game, and there’s no word yet if he’ll be ready to play when the Suns and Kings run it back Wednesday night in Phoenix. So instead, let’s discuss Dragic. Goran came out very aggressive, penetrating into the paint every chance he could. He was perhaps a bit to aggressive, however, as he turned the ball over seven times. He ended the night with a slightly disappointing 10 points and eight assists. This was a game where the Suns were really depending on him for offensive leadership and Dragic didn’t quite deliver. It looks as though he is still working his way back into form. He looked very tentative on both ends of the floor against the smaller yet feisty Isaiah Thomas. Normally, Goran plays with a quiet yet fierce confidence. Tonight, that aura was replaced with pained looks and frustration. When the Suns put the ball in his hands with a chance to tie late, Dragic went to his patented late game move: penetrating to the right block and showing the ball to the defender before reverse pivoting and putting up a short jumper. It’s the move he beat the Grizzlies with last season. But tonight, he put up an awkward attempt that went high off the glass and never really had a chance. He’s not quite himself right now. The question of how well he and Bledsoe can play together is still unanswered, and it will remain that way until they’re both 100% on the court together.

How do the power forwards play?

Markieff Morris had a game he’d soon like to forget. Because of foul trouble, he was limited to just 11 minutes and three points. When he was on the court, he looked out of sorts and exhausted. The epitome of his night was fouling McLemore on a three point attempt as time was winding down in the third quarter. After McLemore hit all three free throws, Phoenix’s lead was cut to six heading into the final frame. After his premier run of play two weeks ago, Kieff has come crashing back to Earth hard. Because of his issues tonight, Coach Hornacek decided to go small for a lot of this game, playing Channing Frye at center with Marcus Morris at the power forward spot. It was with that lineup that the Suns ran the Kings to death in the second quarter and helped Phoenix take a double-digit lead. It was a brilliant move by the first year coach, but it was not without its own problems. The small ball approach put Phoenix at a huge disadvantage on the glass. The Kings ultimately outrebounded the Suns 48-31 overall and 15-6 on the offensive glass. That rebounding paid dividends for the Kings in the clutch when the Suns were dog tired on the defensive end.

Like it or not, Kieff is a lynch pin for this team. Frye can knock down shots from outside (3-of-6 tonight) and rebound (led the team with 9), but Kieff is the physical presence in the paint the Suns need to be competitive. I’m not sure if his current poor form is a fluke or the norm. Whatever is going on, it’s both mental and physical and needs a remedy ASAP. Kieff and the Suns will get a shot at redemption tomorrow night.

And 1

  1. Miles Plumlee’s free throw shooting is getting worse (0-of-5 on the night.) He’s clearly psyched himself out. He’s visibly overthinking and short arming his shots from the charity stripe. The coaching staff needs to get him some confidence ASAP before it starts affecting his aggressiveness in the paint. No one wants one of the real bright spots in the Suns’ season to turn into Andris Biedrins.
  2. The Suns attempted 22 free throws in the first half and 28 overall. If not for those trips to the line, the Suns would have lost by double-digits. It was nice to see the Suns penetrating so much in Bledsoe’s absence.
  3. The Suns have not allowed an opponent to shoot 50% from the field this season. Combine that fact with Phoenix having held a lead in every fourth quarter this year, and the Suns should certainly be better than 5-5.

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