PHOENIX — With the game no longer in doubt with 22 seconds remaining, one play typified the entire evening — and some would say the entire season — for the Phoenix Suns.
After the Charlotte Bobcats had already rebounded a pair of misses to milk a seven-point lead during a possession that started with 1:37 left on the game clock, Gerald Wallace swooped in to grab one more game-clinching board as three Suns idly stood by in the vicinity.
That final meaningless rebound provided an enduring snapshot of this ballgame, a 114-107 victory that the Bobcats took because of superior crunch-time execution and flat-out wanting it more on the balls that could go either way.
“I don’t want to say guys aren’t trying, just sometimes we don’t finish plays,” Steve Nash said. “We don’t grab loose balls, we don’t grab rebounds that are kind of 50-50 ones. I just think we kind of fall asleep sometimes and give up possessions here and there that at the end of the game are crucial.”
Nash attributed this fallacy to a lack of concentration and discipline, and that showed on the final possession when Boris Diaw and D.J. Augustin both corralled crucial rebounds with the Suns trailing by just seven before Wallace’s final board.
A peeved Alvin Gentry took just one question after his opening statement, and he took that time to rant about the Suns’ inability to finish games.
Gentry spoke of how most NBA games come down to three or four possessions. After Nash’s brilliance (27 and 15 on 11-for-15 shooting, his first 27-15 game since 2007) kept them close, the Suns just could not execute down the stretch.
Trailing by two with four minutes left after a Nash layup, the Bobcats scored on four consecutive possessions. Meanwhile, the Suns got an ugly missed runner from Vince Carter, a Nash three, missed threes from Goran Dragic and Channing Frye and then a pass from Carter that Marcin Gortat could not handle for a turnover that led to Charlotte’s game-ending possession.
“We have to be tougher and come up with plays,” Gentry said. “We didn’t do that and that’s why we lost the game. You’ve got to be able to come up with plays and you’ve got to show some toughness and be able to rebound the basketball and have possessions and finish plays. That’s how you win games, that’s how you win close games. We didn’t make any of those, and that’s why we’re sitting here with another loss.”
After trailing most of the first half, the Suns surged ahead 79-72 midway through the third quarter behind a hot-shooting period in which they hit 8-of-11 threes (including 3-of-3 long-range shooting from both Nash and Frye) before the Bobcats stormed right back with an 18-6 run to take a lead they would never relinquish.
The Suns found a way to lose a game in which they shot 50 percent from beyond the arc (16-for-32) and got five treys from Vince Carter and four each from Nash and Frye.
The Suns, however, lost their fourth straight game to this Charlotte franchise (the most consecutive wins any squad has over Phoenix) on the other end of the floor, as the Suns have now yielded Charlotte’s two highest-scoring games of the season. The Bobcats average 118.5 points on 54.2 percent shooting from the field and 50 percent shooting from three against Phoenix, but just 92.0 points on 44.3 percent shooting from the field and 33.4 percent from three against everyone else.
“We’ve had trouble with them the last couple years,” Jared Dudley said. “They just did a good job of exploiting mismatches at times. For the most part they beat us to loose balls, hustle plays and they deserved to win.”
Looking big picture the Suns have now lost three in a row in the aftermath of their five-game winning streak and are now back to four games under .500. Even worse, they’ve now been swept by mediocre Eastern Conference teams in Philadelphia and Charlotte, and that doesn’t exactly happen to most West playoff contenders.
Just like the New Jersey overtime win appeared to be a turning point victory, we may end up looking back at the Detroit loss as the one that sent this season spiraling back in the direction it was headed all year before that five-game glimmer of hope.
“I’m as frustrated as probably everybody else is around here,” Frye said. “I’m just kind of sick of this losing crap, to be honest.”
In many ways the Suns look like a defeated team. Multiple players visibly made a big deal out of every call that went against them, their frustration mounting with every bad break.
Carter — who actually revived his corpse with a very nice 22-point effort on 8-for-17 shooting on a day that reminds us how old he is, his 34th birthday — gave the same speech he’s been giving to reporters since he arrived about how “we have to rise above it,” “it just has to be positive thinking and positive attitude,” and “I believe it can happen.”
But such statements ring hollow for a team whose leader (Nash) openly talks about lacking a determination to finish plays as a team.
The Suns now continue a critical homestand that includes very losable games against Boston, New Orleans, Milwaukee and Oklahoma City. If they can’t beat Charlotte, it’s hard to believe they would win more than one or two of the rest of these games.
We aren’t in November anymore, we are past the halfway point of the season and there really isn’t time for this team to find itself anymore as it continues to drift further below .500.
“I feel like we’re lacking that little bit extra, that little bit of something to finish plays and stay with it mentally,” Nash said.
That something missing is why the Suns now sit in 11th place in the West four games out of a playoff spot after dropping another game they could have won.