PHOENIX – Beyond making the playoffs, the Phoenix Suns want to stake their names in the earth as legitimate postseason threats. They’re young but thirsty, and a Tuesday night loss to the reigning champion Miami Heat heading into the All-Star break was a perfect opportunity to look at the realistic chances of success for Phoenix through a microscope.
Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said it before the game. A win, and it’s a measuring stick. A loss, and it’s not. There aren’t moral victories in the Suns locker room, but the 103-97 loss to the Heat at U.S. Airways Center detailed just where this team stands at the All-Star break.
They’re growing, they’re talented and they have confidence, but the fourth-quarter magic exhibited by LeBron James shows the room for growth.
Well, magic is a strong word.
The King was coming off a long rest. He put himself in the headlines quite on purpose and certainly for a purpose. He led a calculated dunk contest in front of Phoenix media members on Monday. Then, he proclaimed that he wanted a spot on the Mount Rushmore of NBA greats. Even without Dwyane Wade, who was suffering from a migraine and missed the game, Miami was poised for a show.
And yet, Phoenix was in a game until the very end, when everything slowed down for the Heat and sped up for the Suns.
A dagger came in the final minute, when James worked a pick-and-roll to draw a trap on the left wing. He whipped a ball over two defenders to Chris Bosh on the opposite side of the court. Channing Frye, who had sunk in to defend the paint, had to recover to the three-point line and said he felt the wind from the ball’s path whipping past him as he attempted a close-out.
“That’s how the championship teams play,” Hornacek said. “All game long, you can be scrambling and it’s just kind of a slow thing for them. Just like LeBron on the last one, we were kind of scrambling a little bit. (He) saw it all happen and threw it out to Bosh on the wing to shoot the ball. Hopefully, we get there when games are on the line.”
Really, only Suns assistant Mike Longabardi and his generously-listed (by me) 5-foot-6 frame had a shot of bothering Bosh’s three that made it a 99-92 game with 40 seconds left.
But it was James that finished with 37 points, five steals and nine rebounds. He accounted for 17 of the Heat’s 19 final points.
Afterward, the Heat anticipated while the Suns started over-thinking. Miami pressured Suns point guard Goran Dragic with the ball on pick-and-rolls, forcing him to pass out of the plays completely. It wasn’t hedging, but full-out double-teams with a guard and a big man, which by the small-ball Heat standards usually meant someone capable of moving their feet.
“They did a good job of jumping out and they stayed with it a little longer,” Hornacek said. “A lot of times, teams will try to jump out and force the point guard to get out a little wider. They stayed with it and made him give up the ball sometimes.”
Dragic generally played it right. He did have 15 points and nine assists, but all three of his turnovers led to easy buckets. In general, the Suns’ offense stagnated down the stretch, though it kept pace with three-pointers and Gerald Green hitting a few timely baskets.
Hornacek said he saw too many screens that involved slight brushes and slips. In time, perhaps the still-unfamiliar Suns will learn how to better read one another in those situations. At present, the only result was poor screen-action and half-hearted attempts to slip them early.
Defensively, the Suns’ rotations looked fantastic at times and quite poor at others.
“I think in that first and second quarter you saw we made them make 9, 10 passes when we were helping each other, and they were getting 24-second violations,” Channing Frye said. “We have to be more consistent with that.”
Nevermind that James was at his very best. The Suns lost stretches and certainly the most important one, but they never lost control against the battering ram that is LeBron. Transition points off turnovers doomed them, but Hornacek’s implementation of the Euro-fouls to stop the Heat’s fastbreak opportunities — ones that often lead to massive runs — worked, even if Miami scored with free throws on each one.
Phoenix has the tools to play with champions, but it’s still learning how to use them.
“We’ve had a great start,” P.J. Tucker said after putting in 14 points, five assists and eight rebounds while taking blows defending James. “For us, I think it’s still, we think we’re so much better. We think we gave up 10, 11 games we think we should have won.
“We have such receptive guys, we’ll keep getting better.”
- Backing what general manager Ryan McDonough has already gone on the record to say, president of basketball operations Lon Babby told Doug and Wolf of Arizona Sports 98.7 FM that the team would match any offer for Eric Bledsoe when he hits restricted free agency this summer.
- Hornacek on the rapport between Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe: “Eric and Goran have a great relationship. Right now, Eric is talking about, ‘Hey, Goran should be on that All-Star team.’ He’s actually mad about it.”