Miami Heat 97, Phoenix Suns 88 — Groundhog Day


PHOENIX – The Phoenix Suns are nothing if not consistent.

Saturday’s matchup against the Dwyane Wade-less Miami Heat followed the same forgettable script of most games this season. Start slow, fall behind by double digits, fight back into it, and falter down the stretch.

The story of this game — a 97-88 loss, their third in a row — was essentially written last night and Wednesday and a handful of other times this season, and now Alvin Gentry has seen this movie enough times to want to change the ending by altering the beginning.

Gentry vowed to mix up his starting lineup the next time the Suns hit the court on Wednesday against Portland, without giving any specifics as to whose lineup spot(s) he might be targeting and how widespread the changes might be.

“I haven’t decided exactly what we’re going to do there, but we’ll do something,” Gentry said. “We can’t keep getting down 9-0 and then start the third quarter 13-4. Then we put in another group of guys and they fight their way back. We can’t play like that. We have to do something and take a look at another situation. Keep trying to make adjustments and changes until we can get the group out there where we’re not battling from behind. It’s just too hard to play against the world championship team, even without Dwyane Wade.”

It’s about time because the Suns’ starting lineup is the only Phoenix unit that’s played more than 24 minutes together, and it’s been horrid. In 191 minutes covering all 11 games, the starters have scored 93.0 points per 100 possessions and yielded 109.1, according to the NBA’s stats tool, for an overall negative 16.1 rating.

The starting lineup got off to a decent start to the year, outscoring opponents by 4.8 points per 100 through the first five games of the season, but it has been an utter catastrophe since. In the last six games, the starters have scored 75.8 points per 100 possessions and yielded 115.7, which means if the starters were playing all game at this pace they’d lose by about 40. Clearly a change must be made.

“We can’t keep playing like this,” Gentry said. “We have to make some adjustment. We can’t keep playing like this. We’ve got to do something where we can make an adjustment, and we’ll see what happens from there. I think that we tried to make sure we didn’t make any rash decisions or any snap judgments, and after looking at this and seeing what has happened the last four or five games it’s time for us to do something.”

I think it’s safe to say Goran Dragic will start at point guard against the Trail Blazers but no other change would necessarily surprise me.

Marcin Gortat figures to remain in the lineup, but he’s averaging just 6.8 points per game in his last five after putting up four in 23:32 on Saturday night. Before that weak performance, Gentry said, “We’ve just got to get him back” and that Gortat is going through “a little bit of a rollercoaster” right now.

Luis Scola played just 14:37 on Saturday. He has produced offensively but not defensively as per his reputation, but I expect him to remain with the starters.

Many people have been calling for Shannon Brown to replace Jared Dudley since JD is averaging just 8.5 points per game on 42.7 percent shooting whereas Brown has been dynamite in the fourth quarter. This would be no shock.

Finally, although it may have been unthinkable before the season started, the Suns have been much better with P.J. Tucker on the floor than Michael Beasley. The Suns are plus 2.3 when Tucker plays and  minus 12.3 when he doesn’t. By contrast, they are a whopping minus 13.3 when Beasley plays and plus 3.3 when he sits. Their defensive rating is 114.4 when Beas plays and 94.9 when he doesn’t although they are slightly better offensively with him.

Tonight after playing all of 26 seconds in the first half, Tucker defended LeBron down the stretch and did a fantastic job bodying him up and forcing him to take contested jump shots. For the quarter, the three-time MVP missed six of nine shots, and afterward Gentry said he did as good a job as you can do on LBJ.

“He just worked hard,” Gentry said. “He doesn’t get screened, he refuses to get screened. He keeps it in front of him on the dribble, and he makes them shoot it over the top. As great as LeBron is sometimes he’s going to make them. With a challenged shot it becomes much tougher than having an open shot where he’s driving it right to the basket. It’s just effort. He plays it with effort.”

Tucker said he attempted to keep James in front of him because he’s so strong and quick that if he gets a shoulder by you he’s gone. He really enjoys the pressure of being asked to defend a player like that.

“I kind of thrive off that, that’s what I do,” Tucker said. “I just play, fourth quarter, tie game, having to get stops. That’s growing up your dream to be in games like that, so for me I enjoy the time of being in and fighting for the game.”

The Suns fell behind 9-0 after missing their first nine shots (a few at point blank range), and then proceeded to torch the rims for 70 percent shooting the rest of the half against Miami’s vaunted defense, which resulted in a halftime tie after the Heat shot 57.1 percent in the half.

Miami soon charged out to a 19-4 run to take a 75-60 lead against the Suns’ starters with three minutes left in the third. Phoenix countered with a quick 11-0 spurt to make this a game going into the fourth quarter. They evened it at 79 with 8:29 to go before the Heat countered with a 9-0 run, which the Suns responded to with a 9-2 spurt to pull within two before going scoreless the final 2:10.

The Suns closed the game with an interesting lineup of Dragic-Telfair-Tucker-Beasley-Gortat to match Miami’s small ball lineup while keeping Tucker on James. It nearly worked as Beasley had a mid-range jumper that would have tied the game just rim out with 1:56 remaining.

“You get down 15 and you have to fight your way all the way back,” Gentry said. “It’s hard to get over the hump, it’s too hard. You have to end up having a perfect storm, and that doesn’t happen very often, especially when you’re playing the world champions.”

Dragic said many of the Suns’ issues could be mental, and it certainly looked that way in the first quarter. The Suns were getting shots they normally make yet missed the nine in a row with each misfire seeing to beget another brick.

“Some minutes we play really well and some minutes no,” Dragic said. “I think this is our biggest problem right now that we play well and then suddenly we just black out for us. We cannot make a basket, we have too many turnovers and we have to correct those things.”

Indeed the Suns do, and now Gentry is taking the correct stance by switching up the starting lineup. Since Phoenix’s second-most played lineup has logged the equivalent of one half of basketball, all we really know is that the starters aren’t working and are playing far too many minutes together.

The Suns’ starting lineup with Morris instead of Scola has accrued a net rating of 28.1 in 20 minutes (obviously too small of a sample to base anything on but so long as we’re grasping at straws could be worth a shot). In 14 minutes, Brown and Morris with Dragic-Dudley-Gortat has a positive 36.9 rating.

We won’t know until they share the floor together whether there is a better combination than the current starters or whether such a change would just be akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Gentry absolutely should make a move but perhaps the reason the Suns fall behind by double digits every game is that they cannot match the opposition’s talent level with their desire for a full 48 minutes.

“This team is still in search of what exactly we’re going to be, so we have to take a look and see if that’ll work,” Gentry said. “If that doesn’t work we’ll try something else.”

And 1

The Suns have now lost five in a row to Miami in US Airways Center, the longest active win streak for an opponent. The Suns last beat the Heat in Phoenix on Jan. 5, 2007, back in the heart of the SSOL era. They have not beaten Miami during the Big Three era. … The Heat improved to 16-1 with James but no Wade over the past two seasons. … The Suns have fallen behind by double figures in all six home games and 10 of 11 games overall. … Markieff Morris scored a season- and team-high 16 points on 6-for-9 shooting.