We all knew it was only a matter of time.
With the Phoenix Suns leading the league in technicals for damn near the first third of the season, this young team consistently found itself giving the opposition freebies from the foul line. Last year, we expected an undisciplined bunch of role players under a first-year coach, but instead discovered the pleasant surprise of the 2013-14 season.
This year, with expectations cranked all the way up to “playoffs,” this team’s youth has started to show as prevalently as its talent.
Last night against the San Antonio Spurs, the Suns had their four-game win streak snapped by the defending champs on the road. Normally that sentence wouldn’t read so poorly, but make no mistake: it was a very, very bad loss for a team that fancies itself being playoff-bound.
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The Spurs had just posted an 8-10 record in the month of December and were mere percentage points ahead of the Suns for the seventh spot in the standings. Despite missing Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili for most/all of the fourth quarter (not to mention Kawhi Leonard being out the whole game), Phoenix squandered its 77-70 lead with less than nine minutes to play.
We could talk about the slow starts, or about how Phoenix’s three-point shots haven’t been falling on this road trip so far. We could talk about a defense that needs help after surrendering 41 fourth quarter points to San Antonio’s B- and C-teams.
But the best way to demonstrate the real problem is to ask a simple question: Do you remember Phoenix’s epic third-quarter run to build a double-digit lead? Do you remember Alex Len turning into the Air Jordan logo and making Tim Duncan look like he was 115 years old?
Of course you don’t. Well, maybe you remember the Len dunk because it was freaking awesome, but isn’t is still overshadowed by the frustratingly ill-advised technicals that took the Suns out of the game for good?
Only a few weeks ago, I wrote about how mental mistakes would come back to haunt the Suns eventually. Last night against the Spurs, I unfortunately attained prophet status when P.J. Tucker received a technical reacting to a call, and then Markieff Morris followed it up with an even dumber one of his own.
The technicals occurred back-to-back with the Suns trailing 85-82 with 1:57 left to play. For a team that will soon attempt to fight off a fully healthy Oklahoma City Thunder team for a playoff spot, I don’t think I even need to say this, but I will anyway, just to be thorough:
THAT. CANNOT. HAPPEN.
The whole dynamic of the game changed from there, with the Suns having to foul late instead of being able to play for a stop in the game’s final minute. Phoenix had already lost its composure when it let an inferior Spurs lineup crawl back into the game, but that was the final straw that broke the Suns’ back.
Aside from the obvious missed opportunity to go up 2-0 in the season series against the Spurs and take possession of the West’s seventh seed, this one stung a little extra because A) San Antonio wasn’t even at full strength and B) this was a VERY winnable game that Phoenix let slip through its fingers due to poor execution, brutal mental mistakes and a complete emotional meltdown.
This agonizing loss comes just days after Marcus Morris received a T in a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves for heatedly arguing a call with a referee and then got in Jeff Hornacek‘s face when he was confronted about it. Mook apologized for the incident, and everything was apparently fine after that. But maybe that’s the problem here.
Contrary to popular belief, NBA referees aren’t idiots; they’re fully aware that Tucker and the Morris twins are among the league leaders in technical fouls and you’d better believe that rep gives officials an awfully short fuse when it comes to handling any Suns player who debates a call.
Now, I can deal with a young team struggling to close out tight games. Losing at home to crappy Eastern Conference teams has been cringeworthy, as has Phoenix’s unattractive 2-6 record in games decided by three points or less, but that’s not the end of the world. Hell, I can even deal with Eric Bledsoe jump-passes/turnovers from time to time in comparison to this.
But the technicals absolutely need to stop.
Hornacek is a tremendous coach. The way he’s revitalized Phoenix’s up-tempo office and extracts the best from his players is exemplary, especially in such a short tenure. But the next step for him as a coach is to take more control and — at the very least — find a way to discipline this team to make stupid technicals a thing of the past.
In the NBA, egos occasionally run rampant. After all, these are 20-something-year-olds who are paid millions of dollars to play a game. But these games need to stop being pissing contests between officials and young players who can’t see past a missed call to the importance of the following play, because guess what?
The officials are always going to win that one, and the Suns will continue to lose that way.
Phoenix’s defense, which surrenders 107.1 points per 100 possessions, is already bad enough as it is without giving up free points from short-minded technicals.
For an undersized team that’s so enjoyable to watch, these mindless mental errors represent an ugly smudge on an otherwise impressive and promising season. In this bloodbath of a Western Conference playoff picture, the margin for error is painfully thin. If the playoffs are the ultimate goal here, these uncomfortable growing pains need to become a thing of the past.
It’s time for this young Phoenix Suns team to grow up.