PHOENIX — It’s getting to that point in the season where labeling these intra-conference matchups aren’t just a ploy by making something more than it is.
The Phoenix Suns seem desperate to cling to a playoff spot, and while plenty of more talented teams aim to pull themselves off the mat following rough starts, Jeff Hornacek’s crew in hoping not to slip face-first.
One such team that’s had a tougher time than expected is the Golden State Warriors, who visit U.S. Airways Center on Saturday looking to break a tied season-series with the Suns. Losers of two straight, Phoenix has slipped against a ticked-off Chicago Bulls team and to an explosive Houston Rockets squad, and the defense has been the main reason why.
“We have to be more focused on defense,” said point guard Goran Dragic after Friday practice. “We’ve had a lot of defensive slippage and haven’t been playing well. Our rotations have been late and we need to challenge them and pressure the ball. The key is definitely going to be defense, be aggressive and pressure the ball.”
At home against Chicago, the Suns allowed a slow offensive start to affect their offense.
“We rushed a lot of things early on and it kind of got us off-rhythm,” Channing Frye said afterward. “I think sometimes when we don’t get off offensively, we give up a lot of things easily defensively.”
Hornacek has openly complimented his team for willing to battle, and still-steaming P.J. Tucker took the loss to the Bulls the hardest. It showed the next night against James Harden and the Rockets, where Tucker may have impressively outdone himself in the smack talk and the effort, but it wasn’t enough. After the Suns allowed a offensively anemic Bulls squad to hit 101 points, Phoenix allowed Houston to pour in 122 points on 55 percent shooting and 11-of-16 accuracy from deep.
Phoenix sits a half-game behind the Warriors heading into Saturday. It’s seventh place in the Western Conference, percentage points ahead of the 30-21 Dallas Mavericks and 2.5 games ahead of the ninth-place Memphis Grizzlies, who are streaking.
Point is, to call a home game against a Western Conference foe a playoff-dictating showdown is no longer fodder to get fans in the seats. It’s the reality.
“We don’t really talk about the playoffs,” said Jeff Hornacek at the end of a five-game winning streak and before a two-game losing streak. “The board in our locker room which lists all the teams for playoffs, we don’t even put it up. At this point, we’re just going from game-to-game.”
The Suns’ defense hasn’t been all that shabby until the last two games. It certainly doesn’t seem to be a schematic issue, either.
Against the Bulls, it seemed like night and day to watch Chicago contest every one of the Suns’ shots — jumpers or layups — while Hornacek’s squad repeatedly allowed the Bulls to hit open jumpers. The players admitted they were going under screens when they had been instructed not to, and two of those specific miscues led to threes.
“We didn’t play smart,” Dragic said. “We didn’t agree if we were going to go under (D.J.) Augustin. We just have to be more focused and do what we agree in the meeting.”
It was the same story against the Rockets. Dwight Howard fought for easy scoring position deep in the paint, which to stop is easier said than done. It was the perimeter players, including forward Terrence Jones, getting easy looks at the basket — and that was without Phoenix doing a whole lot of double-teaming on Howard.
Now playing a Warriors team tied for second in the NBA by hitting 38.2 percent from three-point range, the above cannot happen.
“That’s on us, that’s not coaching’s fault,” Dragic said of the defensive miscues following the Chicago loss. “It’s a lot of games. If we want to be a playoff contender, playoff team, we cannot let that happen.”