PHOENIX — Playing hard hasn’t been the problem. Neither has a lack of depth or talent. Sure, there have been deficiencies on both sides of the floor, but overall, the Phoenix Suns have had no problem playing their way through the first 47 minutes of a contest.
In fact, the Suns’ five losses so far this season — which have come by a combined 16 points — can largely be attributed to the final minute of play.
As mentioned in the game preview, during its current three-game losing streak, Phoenix has failed to convert on all nine offensive possessions inside of 24 seconds left to go in the fourth quarter/overtime. Six different players have had their hands on the ball, and yet none have managed to put the ball in the basket.
In similar heartbreaking losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs, it was the same story. Outside of Gerald Green’s three-point shot in Oklahoma City, the team failed to convert on six of its seven possessions inside of a minute in those respective contests.
Ten games provides for an awfully small sample size, but even Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek noted before Wednesday’s game that the team is searching for some type of closer who can finish with the game on the line.
“We’re trying to find that guy,” Hornacek said. “Obviously, Eric Bledsoe did early [against Utah]. We had a shot in Portland that was right there, and we ended up missing it. Without him in the lineup, Goran [Dragic] has taken a couple. We’ll just keep spreading it around. I think it’ll be a learning process for us to try and figure out which guy at the end of a game can help us be a closer, finish games off for us. Someone we can depend on. We’re searching for that. But at this point, where we don’t have a guy like that.”
The Suns may not have that guy 10 games in, but all signs point to Bledsoe, who will miss his second consecutive game Wednesday with a left shin contusion, taking over that role eventually.
“He’s not afraid,” said Hornacek. “The Utah game, he made the shot. I think he said it was the first game-winning shot he’s ever made. Hopefully that’s a guy we can look to to maybe do that. I think he has the ability to get by guys and create something. We’ll probably see it happen several times where he makes the right shot and finishes one, then maybe one where he makes the right play and misses it.
“Hopefully, we can get to the point where he can get in there and dish it out to someone for a wide open shot because they’re going to collapse on him.”
Until that point comes, though, Hornacek said his team would be best served preventing those situations from happening in the first place. While on the paper it would appear the Suns stayed in some games they probably didn’t have any business being in in the first place, several of their tight finishes have occurred because of notable lapses long before the waning seconds – be it Portland’s 9-0 run on Nov. 13 or Brooklyn’s 30-4 run on Nov. 15.
“We probably need to buckle down at different points the game,” said Hornacek. “I think it was the fourth [quarter] Tuesday night, where we let them come out with three three-point shots right off the bat. Situations like that, you can’t allow to happen.”
While Phoenix’s 5-2 start masked the youth that was more than apparent on the roster coming into the season, recent late-game woes and an inability to limit runs before they become game changers is unquestionably a byproduct of having personnel that features seven players under the age of 26.
Call it growing pains or simply the tough lessons learned during an 82-game season, but Hornacek believes in the long run these type of gut-wrenching losses will benefit his team, primarily the younger players as it pertains to the speed of the game.
“On the play last night, Marcus takes the three, and he really didn’t have the shot,” said Hornacek. “We had five seconds to go, and he could have taken a dribble to the left. There was a big opening right there. If he would have driven the ball, [DeMarcus] Cousins would have had to help a little bit and maybe Miles [Plumlee] gets behind someone for a dunk. Or if he cracks down on him, we pass out. Gerald was open on the weak side.
“Guys are going to have to through these. It’s tough for all of us to lose those games, but at some point though – after doing it two, three, four times — they’ll start to get the feel. We always talk about the game slowing down for the young guys as they get up in age and have a couple years of experience in the league. The same thing happens with last-second shots.”