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.