PHOENIX — They say offense wins games, but defense wins championships.
If that’s true, then the Suns, the fifth-highest scoring team in the league, should be able to win enough games to squeeze themselves into an opening round playoff matchup against one of the upper-echelon teams in the Western Conference.
But then that’s where this season that has been full of surprises will come to an unsurprising end.
That is, unless this team can figure out how to play defense again.
The Suns (35-24) are in the midst of their worst defensive stretch of the season, allowing opponents to shoot a combined 52.6 percent from the field over the past five games.
This comes on the heels of what had been their best defensive effort, limiting teams to a league-best 37.5 percent in the three games immediately after the All-Star break.
“That’s part of the frustration is we know they can do it,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said. “They’re all little things. It doesn’t happen time-and-time again, but it’s a little thing here, a little thing there. Our emphasis with these guys is — we watched tape again — every play matters, every little rotation, whether you don’t think it’s a big deal to be three feet over to the side, on the weak side, it is a big deal.”
Despite their defensive lapses, whether it’s getting beat in transition or pounded in the paint, the Suns have been able to keep their heads above water. They’ve won two of the five games with Sunday night’s victory over Atlanta moving them into seventh place in the West.
“It bugs the crap out of me,” said P.J. Tucker, who blamed a lack of communication, awareness and sticking to the game plan for the team’s struggles on defense. “I’m happy with all the wins, but I’m not satisfied because we’re giving up way too many points. I mean 35-point quarters –you just can’t do that and consistently win. If we do that against the Clippers, OKC (Oklahoma City); anybody else we’ve got coming up here soon, it’ll get ugly. We’ve got to figure it out.”
And do so in a hurry.
The Suns’ next four games are against three teams — three top 10 shooting teams — which are a combined 63 games above .500.
Meetings against the Pacific Division-leading L.A. Clippers (41-20) sandwich the four-game gauntlet that also sees the Suns play the Oklahoma City Thunder (45-15) and the Golden State Warriors (36-24).
The Suns host the Clippers on Tuesday before welcoming in the Thunder, the number-one team in the Northwest Division as well as the entire conference, on Thursday.
The good news is the Suns have played some of their better games against the better competition, including perhaps their most impressive victory of the season, a 19-point win at the Clippers in their first meeting.
“In this locker room we notice that as well,” Gerald Green said. “We got to change that. We got to change that aspect. Every team in the NBA is capable of beating you. It doesn’t matter if you’re a first place team or a last place team. We’ve got to approach everybody like they’re the first place team. We know we can play with the best, but when we don’t play against the best we’ve still got to act like we’re playing against the best. That’s what great teams do. Great teams don’t lower their talent against teams that are not as good as them. For us, we’ve just got to play everybody like they’re the same level.”
The Suns are 15-11 against teams with winning records; however, after this four-game stretch, they’ll finish the month playing nine of 11 games against opponents currently with sub-.500 records.
Opponent records though may not matter much if the Suns don’t shore up their own deficiencies first, as in the first quarter, where the Suns are giving up an average of 31.4 points over the past five games.
“It’s tough because if you let them score in the first quarter then they’ve got that confidence and then it’s much tougher when the game is on the line. They start feeling good,” Goran Dragic said. “We have to improve our defense, especially now when we play against the Clippers, Thunder and those guys. If you’re not going to be solid then they’re going to run over us.”