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The Suns crumpled under pressure — how will they respond?

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Presented with a chance to make one last push for the playoffs, the Suns crumpled under the strain of adversity and have lost three straight.

Detroit Pistons v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Faced with an emotional, high-pressure situation last February, the Suns responded, beating the Heat on the road as rumors swirled about Igor Kokoskov being fired and winning 8 of their next 19 games. With Kelly Oubre Jr. out and the season on the brink, this year’s Suns collapsed, losing three straight at home that all but erases them from the Western Conference playoff picture.

The Suns are now 5.5 games out of the eighth seed in the West, but their failure in the face of grand opportunity brings up all the same questions as before, after a season that made it look like this group could finally put all that behind them.

“We’ve gotta trust one another, just go out there and play,” Mikal Bridges said. “I know we’re missing Kelly, one of our leaders, but it’s the NBA. Injuries happen. You look (at the Warriors) and they lose their two best players, so it’s just a matter of going out there and really wanting it, and that’s what we lacked the past couple games.

“We’ve gotta, I think, just go home, look yourself in the mirror and see if you really want this, if you really want to win, and if you really want to contribute.”

That Bridges is the one making this point speaks volumes. During the hot streak last year, Bridges was only starting to find his rhythm, making plays off the dribble and locking down superstars defensively. But it truly kills Bridges to lose.

After the 115-99 loss to the Warriors, all except Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Elie Okobo, Ty Jerome, Dario Saric and Aron Baynes were gone from the locker room when the media was let in. Deandre Ayton has not addressed the media since Wednesday.

As a starter and lynchpin of the Suns’ strong small ball lineups, Bridges is a leader on the court. After a game in which it appeared no one was taking public accountability for a dismal showing, it was Bridges who stood up, took that look in the mirror and decided to lead.

From Monty Williams’ perspective, it’s about going back to basics. Though Williams took responsibility for not preparing his team to play this weekend in what should have been a manageable back-to-back, the coach was also frustrated.

“We haven’t played with that kind of energy all year; we haven’t played that selfishly with the ball all year,” Williams said. “Two nights in a row, we’ve been outplayed — from an effort standpoint, we certainly didn’t share the ball, and defensively, we haven’t guarded anybody.”

The last thing the Suns should have to worry about under Williams is accountability and readiness. As demonstrated in the clip above, Williams is humble and stern.

The team is without its spark, Oubre, and this is the longest part of the season. But everyone has remained steadfast with the goal of making the playoffs, and these six home games were likely the final opportunity to make up ground in that race. With all that on the line, the Suns crumbled, despite a steady, disciplined coach and a couple big wins just last weekend.

What is going on? Longtime fans might have gotten a bout of PTSD watching these games. The lackadaisical effort and general carelessness was reminiscent of recent cellar-dwelling teams. That would be fine in past years. This group, though, has shown they can win and has shown a true identity.

A sense of self like that should propel them in spite of absences like Oubre’s. After all, the Suns played pretty well without Ayton. They won two road games without Oubre just a month ago. There’s no reason or excuse for what just happened.

It’s the type of stretch that demands introspection.

“It’s unlike us to not bring that much effort,” Aron Baynes said. “It’s a bit of a low right now for us, but there’s highs and lows throughout the season, and it’s about how we handle it and how we come together.

“That’s what’s gotten us through those times in the past this season, and more so ever than now, we’ve got to do that, come together and try and finish out the right way.”

This weekend solidified what was evident coming out of the All-Star break: Though the playoffs are technically still within reach, the focus has to become internal. Building and sustaining a culture was the top priority in Phoenix this season and it still has to be.

After the loss to Detroit, Ayton could be heard bellowing in frustration from the shower. No one is pointing fingers, but it’s fair to say no one quite knows where to look for an answer, either.

These are the times that sculpt a team’s mettle. Past Suns teams would crumble, make panic moves, and wander blindly toward the next course of action. If this is the season in which this organization turns a page, this weekend will have to serve as a turning point.