The Phoenix Suns bench had been a big reason why the Suns were successful last season and they are vital to the team's success this year. Probably even more so, with Amare Stoudmire now roaming the streets of New York. That bench unit played well to start this season, but has dropped off over the most recent stretch of games (Suns have only won two of their last four games). They simply haven't given the team the same kind of results, and they know it.
Their sub-par play has shown up in the blown leads over the last two games against the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Clippers. In both games, the Suns had tremendous first quarters only to see the bench come in and let the lead slip away, which gave their opponents confidence that they could get back in the games.
In the first quarters of those last two games, the Suns defense was key. They held the Bulls and Clippers to a combined 20-47 shooting (42.6%), had 18 points off turnovers, and14 fast break points. As a result, the Suns set season-highs in first quarter points in both games (36 vs Bulls, 42 vs Clippers) and outscored those two teams by a combined 78-38.
On the flip side, the Suns were outscore by 66-51 in the second quarters of both those games when the bench unit played big minutes. What's worse is the defense, which used to be a strength of the Suns bench, gave up 28-43 shooting (65.1%) and only had eight points off turnovers and nine total fast break points in those second periods. The Suns were also outscored 56-35 in the fourth quarters of both games.
The Suns reserves are well aware of these issues, which go beyond Jared Dudley not shooting well (.250 3P%) or Goran Dragic not leading the team. Josh Childress, who received another x-ray today on his broken right index finger, which is taking longer than anticipated to heal, spelled it out.
"That's something that coach (Gentry) spoke to us about today. He's worried about it just like the rest of us are. I think it's an attitude that we need to develop and it's not there right now. We need to come out every game and try to push the tempo and just change the game a little bit and we're not doing that. We have to pick it up. We can't allow leads to slip that the first team gets."
Josh wouldn't use the Suns tough schedule, lack or practice time, physical tiredness, or his finger as an excuse for his own sub-par performance. And no one would put too much weight on Robin Lopez' injury moving Frye to the starting unit. Personally, I think the loss of Frye with the bench group is bigger than they will admit. No one wants to use that as an excuse, though, and they don't want to indirectly criticize the players who are on the court instead.
Jared Dudley, once considered the leader of the reserves, also talked about the need for the bench unit to pick up their game.
"When I'm not playing my best, it's kind of hard to do energy, but you have to find different ways. For us, we have to get on the break, we have to play full court basketball. When we play half court, we're not as good. We have to get hands on deflections and when the ball's going in the hoop, it's hard for us to do that, so we have to do a better job defensively, because we've had (big leads) these last couple of games and we've given them up."
And finally, Steve Nash acknowledged the bench unit's struggles.
"I just think they're lacking a little confidence and rhythm and cohesion. They just have to play through it -- fight and hustle and keep that energy up. When things aren't going your way and you're struggling a little bit for confidence, you can't drop your head and let your energy go down. You've got to just keep fighting and pick your energy up and things will take care of themselves. I feel like they've got a little down on themselves and lost energy and they just need to keep being confident."
Hopefully, the Suns bench can find a way to regain the energy and aggression they had at the start of the season. They seem to all think it's mental -- kind of like being in a shooting slump -- and they just need to play their way out of it. Tonight against the Clippers would have been a great opportunity, but once again, they didn't bring their best effort.
There's always tomorrow -- or in this case, Sunday against the Denver Nuggets.