"Our guards are getting lit up," coach Hornacek said, to the surprise of no one after the Suns lost yet another game, this time by letting Randy Foye score 31 largely uncontested points.
Most fans knew that Brandon Knight would have to be helped by other strong defenders on the Suns. At 6'3", Knight is not very tall or long to defend the shooting guard position on a nightly basis. But with the help of strong defenders P.J. Tucker and Eric Bledsoe, most figured Knight's shortcomings could at least be masked.
This has not been the case.
The Suns are surrendering the highest field goal percentage in the league, allowing opponents to make 46.7% of all of their shots. Delving a bit deeper, the Suns are in the bottom 10 of the league of FG% allowed from every zone on the floor. In the restricted area. In the paint. Mid range. Threes.
But despite the terrible on-ball defense, the Suns are still 20th in the league in overall points-per-possession allowed.
For those two numbers to make sense, you have to consider the areas in which the Suns are not as bad on defense. If your opponent is going to make a lot of their shots, your best bet is to reduce the number of shots they take.
The Suns are fourth in the league in steals (9.1 per game) and 11th in defensive rebound percentage (77.1%), which both translate to fewer opponent field goal attempts.
In short, the Suns appear to have adopted the not-much-copied Kevin Love defensive model: act as defensive turnstile as long you're in position for the rebound or steal.
The big problem with this model is that it's not a winning formula. This defensive presence is one that inspires confidence in your opponent, which for an NBA player is like a drug.
"I think defensively, we got to be able to stay in front of somebody," Hornacek said. "They got to guard them. It's as simple as that. All [the Nuggets] did was run the high pick-n-roll, kind of the same thing we were doing, but Randy Foye just went wherever he wanted."
Hornacek didn't stop there. He questioned the Suns players attitude and pride.
"If you're just going out there playing the game," he said. "And it's like you know what, who cares I got my money, I got my contract, I'm playing the game. You got to dig down deeper."
Opponents are feasting on Suns defenders. Looking at the Suns on a player-by-player basis, according to nba.com/stats, all but two Suns regulars are letting the opponent shoot better against them than anyone else, topped by four of the Suns' new acquisitions this summer.
But while the guards are getting lit up on a regular basis, the front court hasn't been stopping anybody in closing time.
Incredibly, if you limit the looks to the fourth quarter alone, the Suns front court is terrible. Tyson Chandler, Jon Leuer, Markieff Morris, Alex Len and T.J. Warren all allow 10+% better shooting in the 4th quarter than their opponent shoots on a nightly basis.
The Suns best closer, in terms of FG% allowed in the 4th quarter, is wing-defender-and-sometimes-big-man P.J. Tucker. In 4th quarters, he's allowing only 36.8% shooting to whoever he's guarding (though he's allowing 44.8% overall). That's a nearly 9% improvement on shooting defense when he's locked in and trying to help the Suns win.
"The guys that hate to lose have that desire," Hornacek said. "Have that determination, have that passion to say I'm not losing. Tuck's one of those guys."
Going back to Brandon Knight for a moment, this guy is an interesting case. Among the guards who play a lot, Knight allows a really bad shooting percentage (47.3%, almost 4% higher than his opponent is used to shooting) over the course of the game. But in the 4th quarter, Knight becomes one of the stingiest Suns defenders. He allows only 41.3% shooting in the 4th, second only to Tucker in % differential.
Bledsoe is a rock, despite his recent reputation for lazy defense - especially against Randy Foye. Overall, he allows a lower shooting % to his opponent than they are used to shooting (nearly 1% lower) and stays steady all game long.
The Suns have been incredibly frustrating to watch all season long, and even worse in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for the coaching staff, the problems are all across the board.
For the Suns to improve, everyone up and down the line needs to work harder. Hornacek talked about the need for his guys to dig deep.
"That's a big part of basketball: who's going to get that 50/50 ball," he said. "We can always count on [Tucker] 98% of the time getting that ball. There were four or five other plays in that game where we just go for it softly and someone comes out of nowhere and takes it from us.
"That's just toughness. That's all I can say about that. We got to get tougher guys."