On the evening of Tuesday, February 17th, something happened. The Suns lost to the Mavericks, but the story doesn't stop there. The Suns were utterly worked over on both ends of the floor. Now, we didn't have the same sort of disappointment as we did with the loss to Portland (which featured Gentry repeating the phrase "We sucked" over and over), but it sparked something within the Suns and a realization occured: if they wanted to make the playoffs, let alone make some noise in the postseason, something was going to have to change.
That something, and we all knew it, was defense.
A Different Team
The very next night, the Suns played the Hawks at home. In all honesty, though I usually tend to lean toward optimism when it comes to the Suns, deep down, I thought we were going to lose the game. The Hawks had been very good leading up to that point (and still continue to be very good, minus the mini-identity crisis they're going through), and I thought we were going to be worked in a similar fashion that we were against the Mavericks. I was wrong.
The Suns came out and played a gritty game, scoring a season low 88 points, but holding the Hawks to 80 points (a low for any Suns opponent this season). The post-game conference had the word "defense" mentioned time and time again. But did this mean that the Suns were turning a new leaf, or was the game a result of a cold-shooting Hawks team rather than a defense-playing Suns team?
After the game with the Hawks, many people (including yours truly) wondered the exact same question. Was this a Phoenix Suns team in reform, playing scrappy defense the way we started out the season, or was it merely an aberration?
Two nights later in Sacramento, the Suns looked more in form, scoring 104 points (and surpassing the Free Taco point), but held their opponent to 88 points. However, the same questions remained: were the Suns defending well, or was it more that the Kings, clearly a work-in-progress team (not to mention pretty far below the .500 mark), just couldn't put the ball in the hole?
The Trend Continues...Sort Of
After a few more wins (the Nash-less/JRich-filled victory over the Thunder, the incredibly forgettable game against the 76ers, and the Robin Lopez Show against the Clippers), the question still remained. I asked myself after every game, "Did we defend well tonight?", with the answer always coming up uncertain. The Suns then lost a very weird, very close game to the team that always brings out the worst in us: the Spurs. Neither team defended particularly well. Amare went off for 41, and Richard Jefferson had his highest scoring output in two months. The well-defended games of a couple weeks ago were beginning to look like flukes.
Then, with the Suns needing a win to keep themselves from going into a slump, we faced the Denver Nuggets and won. However, we didn't just win. We put an exclamation point on the game, holding the second-highest scoring team in the league to 11 points in the second quarter. We executed a zone defense that Herb Sendek (the zone defense loving coach of the Arizona State Sun Devils), could use in their next film session. Most of all, we held the Nuggets to 85 points, and we still managed to score 101.
The Suns then again faced the Clippers. After a very lackluster first half, which showed the Suns down by one (58-57, not indicative of a defensive showing at all), they turned up the heat, a la the second quarter against the Nuggets. The Clippers were held to 18 points, while the boys in purple and orange poured in 39 of their own. At the point where I tuned (back) in, and the score was 79-73, with the Suns on top with around 6 or 7 minutes left in the 3rd quarter. At the end of the third? The Suns were up 96-76, and from when I tuned in, were in the midst of an 18-3 run. If that's not defense, I don't know what is. Although the score wound up being 127-101, keep in mind that for the last 6 minutes of the game, we had the extent of our bench playing (with a Jarron Collins and Taylor Griffin sighting...and that dunk by T-Griff was a thing of beauty).
A Step Forward...And Then Backward
The final game of the sample size was the last game against the Utah Jazz. @JaredDudley619 said (via Twitter), "Nap time y'all.. We gotta huge game tonight vs the Jazz.. Check us out on TNT... If ur in phx and ur not at this game u def are missin out". That being said, the Suns, knowing this would be a huge game, came out firing and defending the way that we've grown accustomed to. Aside from another very lucky impressive shot from Sundiata Gaines (remember his shot to sink the Cavs in his first NBA game?) to end the half, the Suns played solid defense, entering the break with an 8 point lead. However, it was what happened in the final 24 minutes of the game that was the most telling.
To start the second half, the Suns looked sluggish, tired, and like the poor-defending Suns we've seen of games (and years) past. There were far too many fouls and turnovers. The Suns saw the lead chipped down, and eventually the Jazz had a lead late in the fourth quarter. But after a flagrant foul from Lopez, untimely turnovers, and overall uninspiring play, the Suns ultimately fell victim to the Utah Jazz, 116-108.
So...the question is now turned over to you, dear Suns fans. Are the Phoenix Suns a team in reform, preaching defense from the sidelines? Or are the Suns a recipient of some lucky calls and off nights from otherwise solid offensive teams? You be the judge.