PHOENIX — In a game of word association, here’s how it would’ve gone this summer. Grizzlies: Western Conference contenders. Suns: Wallowing for Wiggins.
Sometimes it takes a while for expectations to change, even within an NBA locker room. Thirty-one games into each of the Suns and Grizzlies’ respective seasons, the self-perceptions by the two teams have begun to reflect the record. The reality is this was an upset of sorts. Phoenix fell at home 99-91 to Memphis, their second loss to the Grizzlies on the season.
Maybe they don’t match up well with the Grizzlies, so believe Memphis has their number or not. Whatever the case may be, both teams are accepting of their records at this point.
“Hey, 19-12?” said Memphis forward Zach Randolph, who bruised up the Suns’ thin frontline for 20 points and 15 rebounds. “They’re a good team. They have a better record than us so we have to come out and play.”
Play they did. The Suns looked like the favorites fighting a scrappy team looking for attention — remember, just a month or so ago, Jeff Hornacek’s team was doing the very same thing. On Thursday, it was the Grizzlies more thirsty for a win.
“It’s just good to get a win right now,” said Memphis guard Jerryd Bayless, the St. Mary’s High School product.
Certainly, Phoenix missed point guard Eric Bledsoe, who was a scratch with a sprained knee. Bledsoe had planned to go, but he was pulled close to tip time after an examination found swelling. Hornacek called it more precautionary than anything, though he didn’t know if Bledsoe would be good to go in Phoenix’s game on Saturday against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Goran Dragic led Phoenix with a career-high 33 points but played 38 minutes and appeared to wear down in the fourth quarter, missing a difficult but usually-completed reverse layup, for example. The Suns certainly could have used Bledsoe against the Grizzlies.
“You know, you don’t ever want nobody out,” guard Gerald Green said of Bledsoe. “I feel like it’s disappointing for us because we feel like we can beat this team. Obviously, statistically that’s not the case. They’ve beat us twice already, but I think if you ask any guy in this locker room, they think that we can beat this team. Memphis is a good team, but we think we’re a better team than them.”
Green added that the Suns lacked a sense of urgency for, well, everything but the third quarter, in which Dragic and P.J. Tucker scored 15 points that helped turn a 12-point halftime deficit into a five-point lead by the end of an 18-0 spurt. That effort was all for naught once the Suns fell apart in the fourth.
“In the end, we just shut down ourselves,” Dragic said.
Mostly, the Suns were shut down in the paint. Despite their 30 fastbreak points, the Suns struggled to contain the bench duo of Ed Davis and James Johnson. The Grizzlies finished with 17 second-chance points.
There was fight, but Phoenix’s players seemingly became too focused on reckless drives into the paint. After the game, Hornacek even alluded to a “fake toughness” that caused the Suns to pick up charges on drives and led to a series of technical fouls being called on both teams.
“Guys get goofy and try to do things to get you out of your game,” Hornacek said. “That’s really when you have to get tougher — not fake tough, but tougher in terms of your execution, your ball-handling and making sure you’re getting a good shot.”
Grit-and-Grind was too much for the Suns to handle. Phoenix was outrebounded 59-40, and it said as much that Markieff and Marcus Morris grabbed as many rebounds (six) in 41 minutes combined as Channing Frye did in 35 … and 6-foot point guard Ish Smith did in 20.
But the difference from their 19-point loss to Memphis on Dec. 3, which preceded their 10-2 mark over the last 12 games coming into Thursday night, was this: The Suns expected to win.
That’s what made it all the more painful.
Jerryd Bayless on why he began talking smack to someone in the stands: “Some guy on the sideline said that I disgraced St. Mary’s. That kind of hurt my feelings. That kind of got me going a little bit.”