Eric Bledsoe returns, but defensive woes and urgency concerns persist for Phoenix Suns


PHOENIX — If the ticket holder squirming around in Section 102, Row 23, Seat 7 didn’t know any better, he would have thought that the Cleveland Cavaliers were an elite three-point shooting team with a top-flight big man in Spencer Hawes. He would have also likely assumed that the Phoenix Suns were the squad sitting 16 games below .500 in the standings. After all, how could they be a playoff contender with porous perimeter defense and an abysmal effort on the glass?

Then again, the five-year-old holding down the fort in that particular seat Wednesday night was making his first ever appearance at an NBA game — one he was likely thrilled to attend simply because it meant he could stay up past his normal bedtime.

His bright purple, orange and black sign flashed early and often during the non-conference clash, but the US Airways Center first timer couldn’t match compliment it with 48 minutes of energy. And, who could blame him.

The Suns allowed a road opponent to get awful cozy for the third time in their last four games in the Valley, as Hawes and Co. built a 13-point first quarter lead (37-24) behind a lights out 6-for-8 shooting performance from three-point range.

Phoenix flirted with near comebacks on a couple of occasions, just enough to keep their newest spectator engaged in between bathroom trips and nail-biting sessions.

However, a dominant effort on the glass and a 13-point margin on second-chance points made a winner out of the Cavaliers for the time since Feb. 28 and sent the young Suns fan home with a bittersweet first memory.

“We should have wanted it more than them,” Suns guard Goran Dragic said. “We want to be in the playoffs. I don’t know if it was because we were tired. I really don’t what that was. Those fifty-fifty balls don’t seem to be ours anymore. Our rebounding is a problem, too.”

Everything seems to be a problem for the purple and orange of late.

Instead of being a harbinger of things to come, the Suns’ 106-85 rout of the defending Western Conference champions, San Antonio Spurs, back on Feb. 21 might have represented the season’s highest point.

Since the 21-point victory, it’s essentially been all downhill for Phoenix.

With Wednesday’s loss, Phoenix closed out its worst 10-game stretch of the campaign, winning just three of 10 contests. In those 10 contests, the Suns allowed opponents to score 111.9 points per game. And although they saw a stretch of seven straight games allowing 50 percent or better from the field come to end against the Cavaliers, giving up 47 percent from the field and 50 percent from downtown to the league’s worst shooting team doesn’t scream defensive turnaround.

“These are the games that are must wins,” Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek said. “We didn’t come out with that urgency. Again these guys didn’t get after them. They have to see it as a little bit more important than playing a basketball game. If you just come out there wanting to just play, that is what happens. You get outhustled, I mean they killed us on the boards.

“I don’t know. They have to take a look at themselves and see if they’re going to come out and try and get it back or are we just going to go through the motions. It doesn’t get any easier.”

No, it’s doesn’t.

It might not seem that way since Wednesday evening’s affair kicked off a stretch of 11 straight games against teams with records momentarily worse than the Suns outside of the Toronto Raptors, nine of whom reside in the woeful Eastern Conference. But even with favorable scheduling and the timely return of Eric Bledsoe, the team’s inability to defend and rebound could prove costly in the race to make the postseason.

“We just have to play defense,” said Bledsoe, who finished with 15 points and nine rebounds in his first game since Dec. 30. “We let teams score however they want to. We have start locking in from the jump to the end.

“I wouldn’t say [it was a lack of urgency]. Everyone was ready. We just come out sometimes not engaged, whatever the case may be. We just have to focus really hard starting in shootaround.”

Focus is of the utmost important as mid-March turns into early April. The loss to Cleveland coupled with wins by the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies has the Suns sitting two games out of the eighth spot in the Western Conference.

And for a team that was lauded both locally and nationally over the last few months for their chemistry, effort and hard-nosed style of play, something has gone awry since the blowout of the Spurs.

Ryan McDonough’s band of misfit toys has undoubtedly overachieved in 2013-14, exceeding any and all expectations to date. But with a berth in the playoffs still up for grabs for the first time since 2010-11, are the individual pieces, all of whom are being asked to do more than at any point prior in their respective careers, succumbing to the unknown pressure of the push?

“It’s possible,” Hornacek said when asked the question following the 110-101 defeat. “Teams are stepping it up. People at the beginning of the season get excited and get after it. And at the end in the last 20 games, they get after it. We’d think our guys would realize it after these games, but maybe I don’t know there was this subconscious feeling like, ‘Hey, we just played four top teams in the league and now we get an easier one. We can just show up and play.’

“We’ve had that all year. We’ve done that and not beaten some of the teams that we were supposed to.”

In a span of a week, the Suns have proven loud and clear that they can both beat anyone and lose to anyone in the league, so the opponents matter less at this point than the 13 active players inside the Suns’ locker room. While the remaining 18-game schedule features another brief eastern road swing, a back-to-back in the Lonestar State and home contests against the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder, none of that matters much if Phoenix doesn’t clean up its internal issues first.

“We see Memphis and Dallas win, but we can’t worry about that,” said Markieff Morris, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds against the Cavaliers. “We have to worry about ourselves.”

To do that, according to Morris’ teammate, it requires one key ingredient.

“We have to get back on our old tracks,” said Dragic. “We have to trust.”

If Dragon and Co. can’t regain that trust, Section 102, Row 23, Seat 7 might very well go unoccupied after April 14.

Tags: Eric Bledsoe Goran Dragic Jeff Hornacek Markieff Morris Phoenix Suns Analysis

  • johnfromtaiwan

    Watching them fall would be something very tough and heartbreaking to me…..

  • EBJM

    76ers were giving Hawes away and he shows Plumlee what a shooting touch is.

    Green and Bledsoe shoot 1-12 from downtown.

    Suns get killed by 15 on the boards.

    These are the Suns everyone expected at the beginning of the season.

  • DBreezy

    I can’t really complain about Bledsoe’s shooting in his first game back. Green is who he is and that’s streaky, I just wish that he’d have better shot selection when it isn’t falling for him. He had to play tonight despite being off because of no PJ.

    A lot of publications wondered at the outset of the year if the Suns would regret taking Len instead of BMac. That died down, but with the emergence of Plumlee who wasn’t around at draft time I wonder if the long term question will be about Len vs Noel considering the Suns weakness at the 4. From what I saw at Kentucky, Noel was quick enough defensively to play the 4. It was his young offense that had him pegged solely as 5 IMO, although word is that he’s worked on that considerably during his rehab.

    In the end, I don’t see McD going for any quick fixes. He didn’t do it this summer and he didn’t do it at the trade deadline. I think he does so even if the team takes a small step back record wise next season because of it.

  • http://valleyofthesuns.com hawki

    Twilight Time to dream awhile
    of Julius and Jabari, too
    As fantasy strides over darkening skies
    The Suns disappearing from view

    DBreezy….while Len’s potential is intriguing, I’ve always maintained that the Suns should have taken Noel.

  • nuncmeister

    Rebounding rule #1. Go after the damned ball Tapping the ball out seldom gets the rebound.

    Coaches should enforce this rule.

    The suns aren’t doing it.

  • sunsn7

    “I wouldn’t say [it was a lack of urgency]. Everyone was ready. We just come out sometimes not engaged, whatever the case may be. We just have to focus really hard starting in shootaround.”

    Not picking on Bledsoebut if the team wassn’t engaged, then the team wasn’t ready…and the focus starts on the practice floor, not on gamenight.

    Just saying

  • sunsn7

    @ nuncmeister,..I like Charles Barkley’s one and only rule about effective rebounding:

    JUST GO GET THE DAMN BALL!

    Somebody please translate for Frye and the Morris BOYS

  • DBreezy

    Hawki,

    I was surprised that they went with Len when Noel dropped, especially with the medical staff the Suns have, but with the Suns projected to be a top-5 picking team coming into the season I didn’t think too much about it. I figured they would be getting someone out of the Wiggins/Parker/Randle/Gordon mix depending on how they played and how the Suns played.

    As this season winds down though, it looks like McD is going to have to get creative this summer at the 4. The list of unrestricted FA’s includes: Brand, Humphries, Tolliver, Matrix, Big Baby, Villanueva, Hill, Gasol, Beasley, Cunningham, Kenyon Martin, Diaw, and Bonner. They could take a flyer on Hill, but the rest either aren’t upgrades defensively/rebounding wise or are veteran stopgaps who shouldn’t be here on more than 1 year deals imo.

    On the restricted free agent side you have: Monroe, Ayon, Greg Smith, Ryan Kelly, Ed Davis, Ekpe Udoh, Pat Patterson, and Kevin Serraphin. Not much there beyond Monroe whom I can’t see McD dealing with under the terms that Falk will want. So it’s either a trade or the draft. I doubt McD has changed his general philosophy to take back any salary beyond 2014-2015. Also, if the Suns falter during this stretch, I wonder if the stealth tanking word topic will come up in the front office? If they flip flop with MIN, the Suns get their pick this season.

  • http://COX SOUTHPHILLY

    HORNACEK’S COACHING IS REALLY WHAT IS KILLING THE SUNS. HIS SUBSTITUTION SCHEMES(NEVER ALLOWING THE OFFENSE TO GET IN A FLOW OR A PLAYER TO GET AND STAY HOT). HIS INSISTENCE ON PLAYING FRYE AT THE 5 ALONG WITH MARKIEF LEAVES US GIVING EASY PENETRATION AND SECOND AND THIRD SHOTS.HIS HANDLING OF PLUMEE(IN 2 MINUTES OUT THE REST OF THE HALF)HAS NOT ONLY RUINED HIM, BUT LEAVES US WITHOUT A RIM PROTECTOR AND REBOUNDER.AND LASTLY HIS EGO MOVES OF MATCHING SUBS AS SOON AS THE OTHER COACH MAKES A MOVE IS REDICULOUS.WHEN YOU ARE MAKING A PLAYOFF RUN WHY ARE WE USING 11 PLAYERS?

  • Foreveris2long

    Hawki you are very creative this morning. It was good. Yeah I know you were a Noel fan and DBreezy was not expecting the Suns to take Len. I think the drafting of Len was the result of the lack of centers in the 2014 draft, Noel’s injury history was worse than that of Len, the slight build of Noel and very limited offense. Ok once again I was in the minority in wanting the Suns to draft Len due to his upside not his present value similar to wanting them to take Lopez over Hibbert (due to mobility)

    Can Noel effectively play the 4 spot? Probably on a really good offensive team and if they have a good defensive center. He is going to get pushed around a lot in the low post and I doubt he will make teams pay offensively. At the 4 I doubt he will be any better than Gordon from U of A or the kid at Indiana. Payne (Michigan State) seems to be a better offensive option at the 4 and is a decent defender who also has excellent hops.

    You guys might make me eat my words (hot sauce preferred) but I think the Suns made the right move in passing on Noel and taking Len.

  • DBreezy

    Foreveris,

    While I probably would have taken Noel as you said, I didn’t and don’t have much heartburn with Len. If he keeps working on his body and game, he could be a very good center in the league in relatively short order(year 3ish). I’m just noting that in hindsight, if they had known about Plumlee on draft night, might they have gone in another direction? Just one of those random can’t do anything about it things that happens in sports.

    We all know that their goal last summer wasn’t to be this good this fast. A Plumlee, Noel frontline line is pretty fast and athletic defensively coming into 2015. Then you add in the top 5 pick the Suns likely would have had plus an additional lottery pick for Minny moving to 14. I have no problem with how it’s played out instead, just looking at how the cookie crumbled.

    I would say that your man Payne is definitely high on the list of guys the Suns will be looking at. Assuming he’s healthy, I think Noel has a bigger impact than Gordon. He’s a better, more active defender and rebounder IMO. He’s longer, might be faster on the break, and had a much higher FG% at Kentucky. He also shot 15 percent better from the stripe though neither are good FT shooters. Supposedly Noel has done a lot of work there though. All that said about Gordon, I do think if he slips towards certain teams in the draft, he could be a trade up target for McD assuming he comes out.

  • Rengaw

    McD should look at those teams who have been so bad this year they are nearly forced to make deals…..Milwaukee Bucks, NY Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, LA Lakers, Utah Jazz, Sacramento Kings, and a few others. Philadelphia 76ers we missed out on.

    I don’t blame McD for not dealing at the trade deadline. It isn’t like we are one or two players away from a championship. We can afford to look long term with our draft picks and surplus money.

  • sunsn7

    Not an encouraging sign (Frye):

    “We have to look at changes in the first group,” Hornacek said. “At this point, we can’t worry about making changes in the lineup.”

    A VERY encouraging sign:

    “We have to play like we have been playing from the jump – proving people wrong,” Bledsoe said after the game. “Like I said, we are not coming out like we use to. It is going to change. It is going to have to. We have a tough stretch of games going on the road, so we just have to take care of business.”

    “While Bledsoe spoke to the media, Goran Dragic slumped in front of his locker with a big ice pack on his rib cage and a towel over his head for five full minutes. When the media shifted over to Markieff Morris, Bledsoe walked over to his partner in crime for a little chat. It looked like Bledsoe was checking up on Dragic to make sure he was okay.”

    There is still hope for the playoffs. Gonna need a bit of help from Jeff Hornacek…

  • foreveris2long

    Had they known they would get Plumlee and suspected he could be a decent center, would they have selected Len? Interesting D’Breezy. I certainly appreciate your contention they may have selected Noel to play the 4 spot and I think it is plausible. The reason I think they would have still taken Len is the draft pool was weak and there are not any potentially good centers this year outside of the Kansas center. I think McD looked at both the 2013 and 2014 class when he drafted. I just think they just like the upside of Len even with Plumlee but who knows. Interesting hypo.

  • http://thewhistle.com/media/uploads/basketball/ixkznsh1nwmur.gif Suns Fan in Portland

    It will be interesting to see how Noel develops. I wonder if missing his first season will ultimately be good for him. It’s a good opportunity for him to work on his shot and offensive game in general. I still think Len will be a better all around player though. I thought Cleveland was going to take him with the first pick, and I believe management when they say Len was at the top of their draft board. I was stoked he was still available. If this was nba2k and I was GM, I would have picked Len. Then I’d send him to all the bonus camps and get him up to like an 82…