Miami Heat 95, Phoenix Suns 83 — Growing pains off the pine


PHOENIX — Last season the Phoenix Suns’ bench developed into one of the most devastating aspects of a Western Conference finalist, and with an 11-deep roster this year that bench chemistry must be recaptured for the Suns to make a run.

But while the unit drips of potential, it will take time to click, especially after adding two new pieces to a group that had yet to gel to begin with, and that showed in the Suns’ 95-83 loss to the Miami Heat Thursday night.

“Once again we keep searching for consistency,” head coach Alvin Gentry said. “I know I keep beating it like a dead horse, but we’ve got to be able to have some kind of consistency where we’re pretty much assured of what we are going to get most nights. We haven’t been able to do that.

“The second unit has been very good and then we fluctuate back to struggling. In some kind of way we’ve got to get to the point where we’ve got a pretty good handle on what’s going to happen when I take Steve (Nash) out of the game.”

Added Nash: “We’ve had some struggles on the second unit coming together this year, now we changed it again, so it’s tough on those guys. We’ve just got to continue to support them. They’re such good players that you think they’ll find a rhythm, but it’s hard changing lineups all the time.”

The Suns blitzkrieged the Heat for a 21-10 advantage eight minutes into the game as Nash dished out eight assists in as many minutes, but when he left a minute later so did the lead. Miami reeled off a 28-8 run over the next quarter of game time as the bench failed to get anything going at the offensive end, and the team never got closer than seven in the second half.

With Jared Dudley exploding for 33 points as a starter, the bench scored just 12 points on 5-for-23 shooting with Marcin Gortat the leading scorer with four. That effort snapped the bench’s 27-game streak of scoring at least 23, which was the team’s longest since a 29-game streak in 1996-97 and the longest to start a season since the days of Barkley in 1994-95.

The bench has looked lost at times all year, but that was particularly the case tonight integrating a pair of newcomers not yet comfortable playing Phoenix Suns basketball.

“For me it was kind of tough to just go in and try to be on this team just like the rest of these guys,” Gortat said. “There were situations where I was lost and didn’t know what I was doing, but a lot of guys were helping me out, but still I think there’s a positive side and I think with a couple days, weeks we should be good.

Added Mickael Pietrus: “We’re just new to the system. I’m adjusting myself to my new teammates, how they like to play. I was in Orlando for three years, so it’s not going to be perfect in three days. I think by next week we’ll be fine.”

The plus/minus numbers bear out the struggles of the former Magic players. The Suns lost 17 points in Pietrus’ 13 minutes and 13 in Gortat’s 18 minutes, as they were both in for Phoenix’s first-half slump.

They both had their moments as Gortat ran a beautiful pick-and-roll with Nash for a score and also grabbed four rebounds. Pietrus played solid defense on LeBron at times but missed makeable shots that Gentry told him after the game to keep shooting because they aid the offense’s flow. Pietrus also committed a pair of bad turnovers in the third quarter that provides visual evidence of his high career turnover ratio for a guy that doesn’t create much.

Nash went scoreless until 4:42 remained in the game as Miami forced the ball out of his hands with hard double teams off screens. Because of that Nash took just one shot in the first 44 minutes and four for the game despite feeling great today.

“I just tried to make the right play,” said Nash, who finished with 18 assists. “They were double teaming me, guys were wide open. I felt like I made the right plays.”

The recipient of those passes was often Dudley, who set a career high for the second straight game by following up Monday’s 27-point effort in San Antonio by pouring in 33 points on 11-for-16 shooting and 7-for-10 marksmanship from three (a career high in three-point makes as well). Dudley also doubled his season high with a team-high 12 rebounds (five offensive) in 41:33.

The rest of the Suns shot just 32.2 percent while seemingly everything Dudley tossed up found the bottom of the net.

“I stand in the corner, I’m on the wing, Steve does pick and roll, and the defense decides who scores,” Dudley said. “If it’s the roller, if it’s Steve coming off the pick and roll, if it’s a wing man.

“Early on I got a couple shots at the wing, LeBron was guarding me and I tried to get a couple of offensive rebounds, got me going, and then after that it’s getting stops in transition and nobody is really thinking about me, they’re thinking about Steve and Grant, guys like that, so if I can keep hitting shots like that it will be big for us.”

By holding the Heat to 45.1 percent shooting and 95 points, the Suns should have won this game despite LeBron’s 36 points stepping up for the injured Dwyane Wade. Sure, Carlos Arroyo went off in the third quarter a bit, but the ‘D’ wasn’t terrible.

For once it was the offense that failed the Suns, as they scored a season-low 83 points on 40.0 percent shooting as the Heat’s vaunted defense shut them down again.

“We got so many open looks tonight and we shot 40 percent,” Nash said. “I think normally we would score over 100 on the looks we got, just tonight we didn’t make as many shots as we normally do. Tonight was one of those nights where we just didn’t shoot as well as we normally do.”

And 1

The Suns dropped to 0-9 when failing to hit the century mark. They’ve been held to 89.5 points per game in their two losses to the Heat. … Josh Childress was once again the odd man out of the rotation, playing just 6:27 until the outcome was largely decided, and that’s without Vince Carter getting any burn. This is unfortunate to me considering how well Childress played the last two games, but he continues to appear to be on the fringes of Gentry’s rotation. … Dudley picked up his eighth career double-double. … Nash dished 16 more assists than he did last time against the Heat. … The Heat have won a league-high four in a row in Phoenix. … Miami swept the season series for the second time in three years and won its 13th game in 14 tries overall, including eight in a row on the road dating back to Nov. 27 in Dallas. … This contest marked the Suns’ fourth straight against a team that has currently won 20 games (there are only seven such squads), and entering the night their last four opponents had ripped off a 44-4 run. … The Suns dropped two games under .500 for the first time since their 1-3 start. Their mediocrity has been consistent enough that they’ve stayed between two games under and two games over .500 all season. … Who would have thunk it? Garret Siler is the team’s best singer, as we learned during a break in the action Thursday night.