There's no getting around the fact that the Suns have lost 4 of their last 5 games with the only win coming against the Kings at home in a fairly close contest. The numbers show it. Our eyes see it. And the record reflects it. This is not the same team that started the season 14 and 3 and while 15 and 7 is still a very respectable record (tied with Dallas for 3rd in the West) there is clearly something amiss in the desert that goes beyond 70 mile per hour winter wind storms.
In watching the team over this stretch and hearing from Coach Gentry and Steve Nash after Wednesday's practice there's several things that we can put in the "Not Going Right" column.
The reality is there is no single issue to blame. Some combination of all of these factors are working together to create what hopefully we can look back on in April as simply a "rough patch" in the season.
In no particular order here's what ailing the Suns according to Gentry, Nash and your humble host's own two eyes:
Switching Bigs onto Nash
As Nash said, "Teams have adjusted since we were doing so well." And the biggest adjustment the Suns are seeing is teams switching the pick and rolls so Nash is isolated on a big man. While Toronto tried to keep the guard on Amare or Frye in the post and bring help, other teams since then are quickly rotating their other big into the post taking that advantage away.
Nash, of course, can score on these bigger slower players who either have to back off and give him open jump shots or have him easily drive right by them. During this stretch Nash is scoring 21 points per game but his assists have dropped below 8.
That's not where he wants to be, "Teams are switching the pick-and-rolls and it's limiting opportunities for me to get into the paint and create easy shots for my teammates. We have to find a way to open it up so we can make some simple plays and get some easy shots. I can go out there and score 20 or 30 points against a switching defense, but that's not necessarily as good for us as if I scored in the teens and had assists in the teens where everyone is involved and our rhythm is good and we're putting the defense in a bind."
Not Leaving Frye
A lesser discussed adjustment that teams are making is on Channing Frye.
Coach Gentry explains, "Obviously they've made an adjustment with Channing (Frye). When you start off the year shooting 66% in the first five of six games obviously you get, you probably get a little bit of extra notice on the scouting report. So they've done a good job closing out to him and they've also done a good job staying attached to him which is the reason why Steve's scoring is going up tremendously because he's going to have open shots. You can't do both. You can't stay in an protect against Steve and you can't also keep Channing from shooting three's."
Nash called the offense stagnant and said the team was struggling to get as many open looks. Coach said the offense wasn't stagnant and the team was getting good looks but not knocking them down. Who's right?
Based on the Dallas game it was a bit of both.
The Suns had a strong 1st quarter offensively with lots of movement and decisive action but as the game wore on the ball started to stick and players feet failed to move. Nash acknowledged this, "I just think our mentality, we let up a little bit."
Everyone always says "not to use that as an excuse" which is always a signal that what they just said or are about to say is an excuse. Just because something is an "excuse" however, doesn't make it any less true. For the Suns there are several biggies:
1. The Schedule. As my buddy Stefan points out at Suns.com, Phoenix has played three more road games than any team in their conference and two more than any other team in the league in addition to having already played five back-to-back sets of games.
And it doesn't get any easier from here. While the early days were packed with road games they were also loaded with plenty of less-than-stellar teams. Now the Suns come home in December and have 8 more home games with only the Clippers and Wizards that can could consider "easy" wins.
2. No Leandro. When Leandro rolled his ankle in Toronto he was in the fourth quarter of one of his better games of the season. In the first couple of games with out him it was difficult to judge the impact of his loss. LB wasn't going to make a difference in those blow out losses to the Knicks, Cavs or Lakers but he was clearly missed in the close game against the Kings and the defeat in Dallas.
Without Leandro the Suns have been forced to use Jared Dudley in more "aggressive" situations according to Coach Gentry. With LB on the floor teams have to suck in and deny his dribble penetration creating more open spot up opportunities for JD. Putting the ball in Jared's hands and asking him to create offense is going beyond his comfort zone.
The Suns in both of those close games also were forced to play Steve and Grant about five extra minutes each. Early in the season Nash was averaging 33 to 35 mpg max even in close contests but now he's putting in close to 40. That's too much.
Most importantly though, without LB the Suns lose the opportunity to bring in a guy that can change the game with his speed. Early in the season I pondered Barbosa's relative value to the team. Forgive me for even asking the question.
Goran isn't ready to take that role and there is no one else on the Suns bench that can bring an offensive punch and change the game with his scoring.
Tired legs from 15 road games as Steve Nash said. Missing LB as Coach Gentry pointed out. Whatever you want to call it these factors are real and they matter but they also don't tell the full story.
What to do?
Tired legs. Tough schedule. Missing a key player. Opponents adjusting. All those things add up so where does that leave our boys in Purple and Orange?
There was little talk about changing the system. Nash feels the team has enough in the offense although a few things might be added here or there. I would not expect Gentry to suddenly find confidence in Earl Clark and give him big minutes to try and replace Leandro's aggression off the bench. Tucker is not the savior. In fact if anything, Gentry's feeling the pressure to win more and trusting his bench less.
What both Nash and Gentry talked about was increasing the tempo. Not so much going back to a full-on running team but pick up the pace in the half court game and getting into sets quicker.
"A lot of that is just getting down the court quickly, getting into your spots, being decisive on your cuts and your picks. If we do that I think we will create a lot more opportunities for ourselves," said Nash.
This team does not have a go-to low post scorer. The best back to the basket player on the team is probably Jason Richardson at this point but the Suns don't like to go there too often as it leads to a more stagnant offense. This was a fundamental flaw the Suns faced in the 2004-2007 run and it was a notable deficiency going into this season. Unless Robin Lopez somehow manages a huge leap forward or Earl Clark turns into LaMarcus Aldridge overnight, this isn't going to change.
Instead the team will hope a couple of days off and a more home-friendly schedule will lift some of the mental fatigue so the team can get back to playing loose and confident and stop thinking too much on the court.
I've always said that you can't really judge a team until we see how it deals with adversity. This is test time.
Nash says the spirit of the team is still good and everyone is focused on getting better every day. While we might be looking at the big picture he says the Suns, "got some improving to do" and hopes the teams can be better in the second half of the season and reach 50 wins.
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