Jeff Hornacek warned his Phoenix Suns that playing like they did on Tuesday night would haunt them against the Utah Jazz.
Defensive breakdowns became the theme of a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday, and that carried into the backend of a back-to-back, when Phoenix fell 109-86 at Energy Solutions Arena.
The Suns allowed the Jazz to shoot 56.8 percent and 9-of-18 from three-point range. Like Kevin Love did a night prior against Phoenix, Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward was an assist shy of a triple-double, going for 17 points, 10 boards and nine assists. But along with getting sliced up by the young Jazz’s passing, the Suns also couldn’t buy a basket themselves, hitting 38.8 percent for the game.
It hurt that Goran Dragic was a scratch because of an ankle sprain suffered a night earlier, and backup Ish Smith slid into the starting spot with a solid start. He scored 13 points and added five assists, but it wasn’t the same. Dragic’s dangerous midrange game was sorely missed, and the Jazz were rightfully fine with the undersized Smith attempting shots at the hoop even if he got there.
Smith went 5-for-15 from the floor in a team-high 36 minutes, and backcourt mate Gerald Green didn’t have the open looks from drive-and-kicks that he normally finds with Dragic. Instead, he was forced to score off the bounce himself, something he’s not entirely comfortable doing. He finished with a 6-for-15 shooting performance. Likewise, Channing Frye had a quiet night, scoring seven.
The Suns, already a low-assist team with Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, finished with just 14 assists on the night.
Phoenix was forced to run the offense through the Morris twins, and there were few positive results from that. The twins went 5-for-16 as they and their teammates floundered in their defensive assignments — on the ball and off.
The Suns are clinging to the eighth seed, and now the outside perception hoping for a return of Bledsoe has gone from “when he’s ready” to “as soon as possible.”
Now to analyze Jeff Sanders’ pregame points of emphasis.
What’s the word on Goran Dragic’s health?
Dragic suited up for Hornacek and crew but didn’t give it a go. Ish Smith got his first start for the Suns this season and Archie Goodwin ended up playing as a reserve point guard and shooting guard.
Smith starting didn’t give Phoenix the usual change-of-pace punch off the bench, and while Goodwin was relatively safe with the ball, the offenses were stagnant aside from a 25-point first quarter. The Suns didn’t top 22 points in either of the final three quarters.
Like Goodwin’s D-League stint, the assists weren’t there as a point guard, but he did excel in the scoring department, scoring 16 points to go with seven rebounds, and perhaps showing up Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee for the dunk of the night, a poster on top of Jazz center Enes Kanter.
Could Phoenix reverse two negative trends? Jeff Hornacek’s team had been giving up career performances to role players and those role players — Patrick Beverley and Shabazz Muhammad — had especially been attacking the Suns late in games.
The defense again failed to show up in the first half, and Utah took a 53-44 lead heading into the third quarter thanks to hitting 54 percent of its shots. The accuracy only grew in the second half as Utah pulled away.
A nine-point lead heading to the second-half grew to 14 points heading to the fourth before the Jazz added more hurt to the Suns. Just as Muhammad put in 10 of his 20 points against the Suns in Tuesday’s fourth period, former Suns guard Diante Garrett scored 12 of his career-high 15 against Phoenix during the final 12 minutes.
Does Gordon Hayward get going?
Hayward never really got going in an offensive sense, but he did put in his usual all-around performance that could make him the Suns’ Plan B if Bledsoe for some reason skips town this offseason. It was a few powerful dunks at the rim that illustrated just how poor Phoenix’s defense was on Wednesday.