PHOENIX — Sitting through the Suns’ press conference after a game against the Timberwolves on Tuesday felt mighty familiar. Not for coach Jeff Hornacek, whose eyes looked tired for the first time this year, but for media members.
It was like a time machine taking us all the way back to, goodness, last year. Hornacek sounded a little bit like Lindsey Hunter, which by the way, isn’t a complete indictment on either coach. Hunter had Michael Beasley on his team, after all. And it also wasn’t Hornacek’s fault Tuesday that he had a few “I don’t know” answers following a 110-101 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“I can’t believe our guys are tired,” Hornacek said, “if you look at the minutes for anybody, P.J. (Tucker) played 38 minutes but the rest of them are in the 20s and very low 30s. Maybe they’re getting tired from the long season, I don’t know.”
Maybe the loss wasn’t that bad.
But this was the first time Hornacek had really seemed stressed over his team’s effort.
Like Hunter, he didn’t need to question Tucker, who crashed the boards for 16 rebounds but missed a good deal of putbacks. Hornacek didn’t need to question Goran Dragic, who scored 16 points but sprained his ankle before fouling out with less than four minutes to play in the game.
From there, Phoenix broke down defensively in the final three minutes, when the T-Wolves ran back-cuts, scored off offensive boards and generally beat the teeth through the lips of the Suns.
“It’s not just the team scheme or help, it was these guys have got to battle their guy 1-on-1,” Hornacek said afterward. “Then if there’s help, there’s help. There’s too many easy things. Muhammad got in there and just shoved our guys around, got rebounds, did anything he wanted in there.”
Muhammad is Shabazz Muhammad, the rookie who played a career-high in minutes and scored a career-high 20 points.
For the much-maligned swingman, the Suns’ lackadaisical approach turned into a validating night for a player who entered college at UCLA with all the hype. Since, he’s only faced questions of selfishness and has been re-evaluated in the mainstream from a top-5 pick to a bust. Muhammad was always a relentless offensive rebounder in college, sure, but it was still a big deal he only played 10 or more minutes per game in four prior games.
At the end of the Timberwolves win Tuesday, Muhammad’s performance arguably became a more important topic in Minnesota than another ho-hum effort from forward Kevin Love, who scored 33, grabbed 13 rebounds and added nine assists.
It mattered Muhammad scored 10 points in the fourth quarter alone, four of which came off offensive boards. He also grabbed five of his six rebounds in the final quarter, and three offensive grabs led to Timberwolves scores.
“My favorite part was the two big rebounds at the end to really try to secure the game for us,” Muhammad said.
Along with the withering defense, the Suns suffered from offensive breakdowns in the final three minutes. Dragic scored twice in a row to give Phoenix a 95-92 lead with four minutes left but then fouled out. Ish Smith, as well as he played, couldn’t get the offense into gear, though it wasn’t necessarily his fault.
Hornacek again wondered about his teams’ legs.
“I just think we didn’t get into our offense,” the Suns coach said. “Maybe being tired, but you can’t run your offense when all of a sudden there’s six seconds on the shot-clock and we’re finally getting to the option. I don’t know, I guess they just got tired.”
Phoenix missed its last eight shots. A few were decent-enough tip shots from a still-battling Tucker, but overall, nothing was doing.
After the game, the locker room was somber and barren. Gerald Green was short and disappointed, only going as far as saying his Suns had to get back to how they were playing prior to this two-game skid.
“It kind of ended how it started,” he said. “They was able to kind of get things going in the beginning and they got things going in the end.”
The good news is that while Hornacek’s postgame message might ring similarly to last year’s pleas from Alvin Gentry and Lindsey Hunter, all the “I don’t know” statements and all the questioning of effort will hit this locker room a little harder than they would have with last year’s roster.
These Suns are likely not taking it personally, because taking it personally means overlooking that they’ve gotten this far — and found so much success — for reasons beyond their personal performances.
There’s no rally cry statement from the coaching staff to get the Suns’ attention.
Said Hornacek: “The only message to them is if they don’t turn around and play better defense against Utah tomorrow night, we’ll get killed out there.”