The Phoenix Suns coming off two losses in Portland to the Trail Blazers and having played a disappointing game at home on Wednesday against the Memphis Grizzlies, needed to give a good showing tonight at home. That didn't happen and the visiting Blazers won the game 101-94.
The Suns were flat to start the game and weren't able to match the energy or intensity level of a Portland team that played the day before and traveled overnight to play again today. The tired-looking team was the one that had been sitting at home with an off day on Thursday. There's no way that lack of energy is not a gut punch to the fan and players alike.
The Phoenix defense, as it's been prone to do over the last stretch of games, waited until the second half to show up and make a mark on the game. That works against poor teams like the Wizards or Pacers, but against the good teams like Portland who had an effective game plan that limited the Suns rhythm, it wasn't nearly enough. Waiting until the fourth quarter to turn on the pressure isn't going to work and Coach Gentry is well aware of that.
"During that stretch in the fourth -- just like we always do -- we played great defense (holding Portland to 14 points). But as I said to the guys, when you dig yourself that kind of whole, everything has to be perfect," the exasperated Suns coach explained.
That much is obvious and well known to this veteran team. The question is why and what can be done to regain the confidence and loose -- but still competitive -- energy the team's leaders say they need to play with. Steve Nash has lead the Suns through slumps like this before but there's an additional hurdle to overcome this season.
"The difference I think this year, is there are a lot of new guys so there's not a lot of continuity. The guys that have been here have to really try and make those new guys feel good and feel like they're important, that there's no pressure and just go out and play and have fun," Nash said.
"If we don't have fun, we're not going to be as good a team anyways, and we're not going to win many games. Our team's not a muscle team. We can't go out there with a scowl on our face. We have to go out there with a smile and a swagger and a little bit of cockiness to jump up and make shots and hustle on defense and dive for loose ball and pick each other up."
Perhaps no player typifies that lack of a positive attitude more than Jason Richardson who is mired in a horrible three-game slump where he's averaged only six points per game which is similar to a three-game slump he had last season between January 15 and 18. Richardson going into tonight, led the Suns in scoring with 19.6 points per game.
"Right now I just have to go out there and play ball and relax. I think that's the main thing right now. I think I'm so tensed up right now. I just have to go out there and play ball," Richardson said about his own mentality right now. He calls himself his biggest critic and admits that he's trying a little too hard.
While the Suns players were mostly focused on the mental aspects of the game and still insist that they can be a good team when they play the right way which steams from being in the right frame of mind, the Portland Trail Blazers also had something to say about the outcome tonight.
Portland shot the ball from outside extremely well, scoring 61 of their 101 points from outside the painted area. The Suns defense certainly made things easy for them at times, but they still deserve credit for knocking down open looks. If the Suns had been able to hit as many of their open shots tonight the result probably would have been different.
Portland was lead by Brandon Roy's 26 points, who despite his knee problems, played 41 minutes on the second night of a back to back.
Defensively, the Blazers switched all the Suns screens and stayed home on the shooters. That left it up to Nash to create much of the offense. He lead the team with 11-19 shooting and 24 points but he only had five assists as the Blazers were able to bottle up the pick and roll with only two defenders. Portland also used a zone defense for extended periods which gave the Suns open outside shots that they simply weren't able to convert.
Statistically, the Suns did well in rebounding (39-36) and points in the paint (38-40) but weren't able to hit enough shots to keep up with Portland's 49.3 percent shooting.
The Suns (11-12) now have four days off to recover and work things out on the practice floor before playing again at home on Wednesday against the Minnesota Timberwolves.