"We look like a playoff team."
"It's playoffs or bust."
"We're looking to win a championship, not only make the playoffs."
Those were the words used by Markieff Morris, P.J. Tucker, and Eric Bledsoe respectively in a recent article by Paul Coro of azcentral.com about the Phoenix Suns' playoff aspirations this season.
One game in, and they appear to have forgotten all about that.
In the season opener against the Dallas Mavericks last night, the Suns looked disjointed from the opening tip. P.J. Tucker picked up two fouls in the first 3:30 of the game. Markieff Morris and Tyson Chandler joined him on the bench just over three minutes later. By halftime, 10 Suns had committed at least one foul, and Phoenix was in the early stages of digging its own grave. With 4:11 left in the 4th quarter, the Suns were down 28 points.
"Part of our aggressiveness was probably taken away by all of those fouls they called in the first quarter," coach Jeff Hornacek said afterward. "We had guys in foul trouble. Even with all of that, we were still up by three at one point. We try to tell the guys, ‘hey just keep hanging in there. The shots will go down.' Well they never did and then they (the Mavericks) started making them."
By virtually every measure, the Suns were outplayed by Dallas, whether it was field-goal shooting (47.1 percent to 39.1 percent), 3-point shooting (47.6 percent to 25 percent), assists (24 to 15), steals (7 to 3), turnovers (8 to 18), whatever. Phoenix's only edge came on the glass, where they outrebounded Dallas 53-48 thanks to a glut of misses that led to a 13-6 edge in offensive rebounds.
That is not how you end a playoff drought, especially when facing a team that will be in direct competition with you for one of the West's final playoff seeds — and at home to boot.
For all intents and purposes, this was an extension of the preseason for the Suns. It saw them fall behind early, then stage a comeback. Only this time, they were doing it against first stringers, not players who are currently headed for the D-League or overseas. As a consequence of that, the Suns fell behind bigger and had their surge stunted at 92-78 in the 4th.
While many NBA players and coaches (and fans) argue that the preseason is too long, the Suns just argued quite vociferously to the contrary with their play. Last night's starting lineup suited up together just twice during the preseason and would have benefited from another game scheduled within the week of downtime that preceded the start of the season. It would have helped the players gain greater familiarity with each other and maintain the game rhythm the team was beginning to build. Instead, the Suns came out like a half-dead cow.
Still, a longer preseason wouldn't have been Phoenix's panacea, and the lack of fight the Suns showed was discouraging after the bold rhetoric they spouted entering the season. This was supposed to be a team that was able to win games with its defense, but the defense belonged on a milk carton yesterday. Meanwhile, players routinely fell back into bad habits. Bledsoe barreled into the paint and flung up shots in hopes of drawing contact. Alex Len did not attack the basket with the same determination displayed in the preseason. Perimeter defenders gambled too often for steals that didn't pay off, leaving a wide open lane to the basket. The list goes on and on.
"You got to flush it down the toilet," Hornacek said. "You chalk it up as a bad game by everybody and you bounce back two days later and play again."
What else can he say after a game like that?
It is important to bear in mind that this was just one game out of 82.
However, if Phoenix truly desires to be a playoff team, it cannot be this weak-minded going forward. There will be nights where shots don't fall, but that is no excuse for turnstile defense. Good teams manufacture ways to win when things aren't going their way. The Suns aren't there yet.
Some dogs will bark big until the gate is opened, then tuck their tails and run. Others lunge for the throat. Every player on this team will need to make the same decision about what they're going to do for the next 81 games of this season — tuck their tails or go for the throat.
"I think everybody from top to bottom can take a piece of this loss," Tyson Chandler said. "We stay together when we lose and same thing when we win."