PHOENIX — The finish wasn’t what bothered Phoenix Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek on Sunday night, though losing an 11-point fourth-quarter lead will cause many a sleepless night.
No, it was the start — a disastrous first quarter in which the Suns missed 15 of 22 shots and allowed 22 points in the paint while getting outscored 30-16 en route to a 115-112 loss to the Houston Rockets.
The 16-point effort came on the heels of a 19-point performance two days earlier against San Antonio, marking the club’s first consecutive sub-20-point first quarters of the season.
The Suns were able to overcome the insufficient start versus the Spurs, but not versus the Rockets.
“We’re looking for that consistent effort to start games, especially in the big games,” Hornacek said. “Teams like the Rockets you can’t get down by 16, 18 points. It takes a lot of energy to get back in a game and then it’s a dogfight. We want to be that team that comes out and establishes ourselves early.
If you want to be a good team I think that’s what you got to do.”
Typically, the Suns (33-22) do get off to good starts.
Their first-quarter scoring average of 26.6 points per game ranks seventh-best in the NBA. However, over the past three games, the Suns’ first-quarter scoring has dropped by more than five points to 21.3.
“We are not focused enough on defense, especially (Sunday) they were having too much easy layups, easy transition points,” guard Goran Dragic said. “We didn’t start the last two games focused enough. When you’re chasing that lead and you burn all of your energy, it’s really hard to play in the fourth quarter.”
Improved first-quarter play is a must when the Suns host the Minnesota Timberwolves tonight at 7 p.m.
The Timberwolves score more first quarter points (28.2) than any team in the league. Over the past three games, they are averaging 30 points in the first 12 minutes of play, including a 34-point performance at Portland on Sunday.
Against the Blazers, Kevin Love scored 13 of his 31 points in the first quarter; part of an effort that helped him earn Western Conference Player of the Week honors for averaging a league-best 36.7 points and 12.7 rebounds.
“It’s a big challenge for our guys,” said Hornacek of Love, who leads the NBA with 47 double-doubles. “But they should relish those opportunities to play the great players in the league and see how they can go up against them and battle them and see if for one night if they can get the best of them.”
The Suns did just that in the first meeting against the three-time All-Star, holding him to 15 points on 4-of-20 shooting in a 104-103 win at Minnesota on Jan. 8.
“I know everybody is probably going to remind him of that, so it would be nice if you just let it go,” Channing Frye said.
The key to limiting Love, a 6-foot-10, 243-pound big man who is averaging a career-high 26.5 points and 13.2 rebounds this season?
“Don’t give him no space,” Frye said. “I kind of play him like how I wouldn’t want to be played and just try to stay on his hip and trust the guys behind me.”
Minnesota (27-29), winner of three straight before losing at Portland, is 10th in the West and 6.5 games back of the Suns, who currently sit eighth after Dallas’ win in New York on Monday.
“We can’t get so locked in to stopping one particular star because then other guys beat you,” Hornacek said. “It’s just being focused and being disciplined in our coverages on guys. We can’t get selfish in terms of just guarding our guy.”