It doesn't seem possible, but the Phoenix Suns' season is already slipping away, and we haven't even reached Christmas. The Oklahoma City Thunder have surged up the standings, to the surprise of no one, after securing the returns of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. The Suns (12-14) are still a game ahead of the Thunder (11-13) in the standings, but it is painfully obvious that the two teams are heading in opposite directions.
Following a six-game losing streak that included a myriad of tragedies, the Suns are losing more than basketball games. They are losing their identity.
Jeff Hornacek built a team that thrived on simplicity. Spread the floor, attack the middle, hustle and never say die. Suddenly the high screen action that was so deadly last year has all but vanished, and has been replaced with convoluted schemes that take too long to develop and don't seem to have the faith of the players. What results is a lot of haphazard passes around the perimeter until someone decides to stop the ball and either hoist from 3 or attack the painted area, which is suddenly populated by opposing defenders.
After the most recent embarrassment at home to the admittedly talented Milwaukee Bucks, Hornacek offered this quote about Markieff Morris: "Markieff was doing such a good job in the post, we were trying to get him the ball in there." He continued, "Our guys couldn’t get in there, fronting them, just took us too long to get into it, so by the time we went to something else, it was too late."
Markieff was the subject in this particular instance, but you could replace his name with virtually everything else the Suns have tried to do lately and it would still ring true. There seems to be no sense of timing in the halfcourt sets, and very rarely are they able to get where they want to on the floor. They can stay competitive if they're connecting from long-range, but so few of their long-range attempts these days are a result of breaking the defense down properly.
As for that 'never say die' attitude that was born during last season's surprising campaign, this team is uncomfortably comfortable with saying die. They have already suffered three 20+ point defeats during which they never threatened -- a feat accomplished only twice last season, with one coming in a game that Ish Smith started (2/26 @ UTA).
Gone also is that famed 'stupid' mentality. The team suddenly seems to be quite the opposite -- cripplingly self-aware. We've all heard the old adage about playing to win versus playing 'not to lose'. The Suns have exemplified the latter quite remarkably. They often seem paralyzed with fear at the prospect of suffering yet another humiliation, and in general look to be having a pretty miserable time out there.
None of this is to insinuate that the players don't care. They absolutely do. They stomp their feet, act demonstratively, puff their chests up--basically, they behave the same way as wild animals that are outmatched and have no clear opening to attack.
About the only compelling storyline at this point is who will end up leading the team in scowls. Gerald Green is the reigning champion in this department, but he is facing stiff competition this year.
It shows in the mannerisms of their coach, too. The calm, unflappable version of Hornacek from his rookie season has slowly transformed into a much different iteration--one that rolls his eyes and shakes his head and paces about in disgust, when he isn't barking at the referees.
Phoenix Suns basketball has become a chore to watch, and it certainly doesn't look like much fun to be directly involved in it, either. There might be no recourse available at this time to recapture the identity of the Jeff Hornacek Suns at the moment, short of hitting the magical reset button and going back to training camp.
Or July, for that matter.
Here in the real world, this might still get worse before it gets better.
On The Horizon
Note: Forgive me for skipping the recap of the past week. I have no inclination to rehash the horrors that I have seen, and I doubt you would be inclined to read it, unless you're a disturbingly sick individual.
This 'home court' thing doesn't seem to be the Suns' jam, especially against East teams, so why not head out on the road? The Suns should have revenge on their mind after dropping one to the Hornets on November 14, 103-95, but to suggest so would be to imply that the Suns have any pride or joy left. Aside from that, you know the drill. The Hornets are 6-18 on the year and the Suns can't afford another letdown against a bad team if they want to right the ship and yada yada. I'm not betting on them until they start looking like they enjoy basketball again.
If they can't notch a win in Charlotte, then they'll have another game against a bad team that they can't afford to lose to if they want to right the ship (will someone please right this ship?!?!)--the hapless Knicks, who stand at 5-21. If they can't squeeze anything enjoyable out of that matchup, then perhaps the formidable Wizards, second in the East at 17-6, will get their blood flowing.
Here's to hoping that we see the Suns smile again at some point in the next week ... somehow, some way.
We need it. This is supposed to be fun.