PHOENIX — Conditioning is a pretty important strength to have for any kind of competitive team in any sport, let alone a professional basketball team that bases its entire offensive philosophy on outrunning teams.
The Phoenix Suns (3-3) took pride in running opponents out of the gym last season and have talked all summer about wanting to be even faster on offense this year. From the post-game chatter after the Suns’ gut-wrenching, 114-112, double-overtime loss to the Sacramento Kings (5-1) on Friday night, the conditioning doesn’t seem to be there yet.
“I don’t know if we are tired or out of shape or what, there was some talk that maybe we are not in the best of shape yet,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said after the game. “In the fourth quarter we are walking it up, and get caught with the shot clock. We run a normal play and by the time we get to the second option, there is five seconds left on the shot clock. Now it’s pick and roll and they know it.”
This problem isn’t something that has popped out of nowhere either. Hornacek mentioned on a few occasions during the preseason that he was not happy with the conditioning of his team. Excuses aside, the Suns led the Kings for the majority of the game, and blew leads of seven points and four in the two overtime sessions, respectively.
Hornacek also said that he probably should’ve taken a couple players out for a minute break at the beginning of the second overtime due to fatigue. Outside of Isaiah Thomas replacing Miles Plumlee for the final seconds of regulation and for a three-minute stretch of Markieff Morris rather than P.J. Tucker in the fourth quarter, the same five played for the final 16:04 of the game, with Eric Bledsoe playing the final 20:28. Four of five starters played 40-plus minutes with Tucker coming in at 37 minutes off the bench.
In the locker room, players were talking about how hard it can be to run for an entire game.
“The way we play is tough, it’s tough,” Tucker said. “We have guys that can really push the ball. We try to get it up and get shots in four, five seconds.
“When you are pushing like that and playing defense on the other side, it’s tough. I think it’s something that we keep working at and get better as the season continues.”
Tucker was a bright spot in the loss, scoring 15 points with some clutch shots throughout the contest. He also grabbed seven rebounds and played great defense, helping to hold 24-point per game scorer Rudy Gay to just 11 points on 5-of-22 shooting. Gay came into the night averaging 32 points in his last four games.
“We need that intensity from everybody,” Hornacek said. “He didn’t care who he guarded, again he is our energy guy so we will have to get him in earlier I guess.”
Hornacek wouldn’t say if he meant a change in the starting lineup, but he knows that something needs to change.
The Suns were lucky to even get to overtime despite leading for the entire game. Sacramento held the Suns to just 22 percent shooting and 11 points in the fourth quarter.
A perfect microcosm of Friday night’s game was the box score for Goran Dragic, who came out of gate on fire to score 10 of his 22 points in the first quarter on 4-of-6 shooting. After that, he closed with 12 points on 3-of-11 shooting. To be fair, Dragic probably had seven to eight shots rim in and out, but that stat line was essentially the summary of the game. Hot start, cold finish.
“We can still get better as a team,” Dragic said. “In the fourth quarter we didn’t run as fast as we could, maybe we were satisfied with a nine-point lead. We need to try and run, run the whole 48 minutes. It’s tough.”
This wasn’t the first time the conditioning has been an issue this season. The Suns faltered in the second half on Wednesday night against Memphis as well, scoring only 39 points after putting up 52 in the first half.
On the bright side, it’s a long season for the Suns to figure this thing out. On the flip side, the Suns don’t have many games to give away like they did against the Kings. For a team that is coming off a 48-win season where they missed the playoffs by one game, there hasn’t been much urgency early on.
Players know that every game is important, but also understand it’s a long season. Heck, one bounce here or there and the entire outlook of this game is different.
Tucker isn’t ready to push the panic button just yet.
“It’s early, we went through stages like this last year as well,” Tucker said. “It’s a new team, we are still learning how to play with each other, different sets and lineups. We will get better and keep working to improve.”