PHOENIX – The Phoenix Suns have lost three consecutive games and seven of their last nine. While searching for wins, they are also seeking lineups that work well together.
The Suns used their 11th different starting lineup in Friday’s 121-96 loss to the Knicks and while some of the changes have been necessitated by injuries and trades, tonight’s, head coach Alvin Gentry said, was purely about matching up with the opponent.
“We just thought that that was the best lineup to stick out there to try to match up with them so that we don’t have a seven foot guy running around trying to chase a 6’5″ guy,” he said of going with Josh Childress to open the game instead of one of his centers.
In the past teams were forced to try to match up with the Suns, not the other way around. But so goes it for the Suns, who faced a team that is coached by former Suns boss Mike D’Antoni and led by former Sun Amare Stoudemire on the floor.
“We caught them at a time that they’re trying to find their identity and they will,” D’Antoni said.
For the Suns, if part of finding their identity involves shuffling the lineup, it could be some time before they really know who they are. In fact Childress, who did not play Wednesday against the Lakers and has found sparse minutes this season, learning he was starting as late as he did meant having to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. He said he found out, literally, just before the announcers said the lineup.
“It’s the NBA, you’ve got to always be ready,” he said. “It was pretty random but I look forward to, hopefully, just building on that and earning more minutes through practice and stuff.”
Last season the Suns attributed much of their success to a second unit that had the ability not only hold leads, but lead comebacks when needed. Whether the recent struggles have led to the ever-changing lineups is uncertain, but the players say they need to perform regardless of who is on the court with them.
“We have to find chemistry every time it’s a different lineup there,” Goran Dragic said. “But still, everybody knows how to play basketball so we just have to come together and work hard.
“Now we are playing bad, but still we have to go on.”
Who the team continues to use seems to be a game-by-game decision. Eleven players saw at least six minutes Friday night, though Robin Lopez did not see the court until the game was out of hand. Hakim Warrick, who started the game’s second half, said the players sense Gentry is trying to find something – anything – that works.
“That’s something, when you’re struggling, you continue to go out there and try to find combinations, good combinations, and we’re still looking,” he said.
The problem for the Suns is that the chemistry that was so strong last year has eluded them through 34 games this season. Seemingly no longer the “Run and Gun Suns,” what was once the most easily identifiable team in the NBA is simply at a loss when it comes to an identity.
“I’ve tried, like everybody, to sort of figure out what exactly it is and I’ve probably wracked my brain doing that, probably mentally drained as a result of that,” Grant Hill said. “Obviously, I guess we are trying to figure out who we are, what we are.”
With 48 games remaining the Suns find themselves 4.5 games out of the 8th and final Western Conference playoff spot. While they’ve undergone significant changes in-season, there is an understanding that with every lost game is another chance to make up ground while Gentry works to make up his mind on the rotation. His team knows it’s not easy on the head coach.
“We’ve already played how many games, over 30 games? We’ve had some good games, some bad games, but now we just have to find the right five guys on the court that they’re going to battle, they’re going to play defense, offense,” Dragic said. “It’s tough, for [Gentry] and for us.”