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Phoenix Suns lack ‘sense of urgency’ and are playing their worst defense of the year

PHOENIX — It is not how the Suns wanted to open a stretch of seven of 11 games against sub-.500 teams, getting beat up by a Cleveland club that had lost four straight and seven of its last nine.

No, certainly not a good start.

More troubling though is what continues to be a rather lengthy stretch of poor defense.

“Defensively, we’ve not been good,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said on Thursday.

That’s an understatement.

The defense, if we’re honest, has been awful. In fact, no team in the NBA has played worse defense recently than the Suns.

In the past 10 games, in which they are 3-7, the Suns rank 30th in opponent field goal percentage (51.9) and 28th in opponent points scored (111.9).

“Sense of urgency,” Eric Bledsoe answered when asked what has changed.

The old adage of it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish apparently doesn’t apply to the Suns, who have flipped the script for when games are won and lost.

They’re losing games not in the fourth quarter, but in the first quarter.

“The first quarters are a big trouble for us,” said Hornacek, pointing to the 31.5 points they’ve allowed on average in the last 10 games, “which lets teams get off to confident starts and then you’re battling uphill from there.”

And the deeper the hole you’ve dug for yourself, the harder it is to climb out of.

“It takes a lot of energy out of you. You’re tired; you’re not hitting those shots,” Goran Dragic said. “We have to take care of business early in our games.”

Dragic, who is dealing with a muscle strain on his left side, blamed communication — or the lack thereof — for the defensive issues, which only now have become a regular occurrence.

Immediately after the All-Star break, the Suns held teams to under 40 percent shooting for three straight games. Since then, they’ve allowed 50 percent or better shooting eight times in 10 games.

Part of that, according to Hornacek, can be chalked up to the time of year. The Suns are 64 games into an 82-game schedule.

“We’re just not as scrappy and as tough as we were earlier on. We got to get back to that,” he said. “We got to try to find that next gear. When you’re tired you have to battle through it.”

P.J. Tucker, the Suns’ number-one defender, missed the game against Cleveland. He was at home, serving the league’s one-game suspension for an elbow to the chin of the Clippers’ Blake Griffin on Monday. He blamed himself for the loss, not being there for his teammates.

The brief exile, however, gave Tucker new perspective on what’s been ailing the defense.

“On-ball, one-on-one defense, accountability, boxing out, transition defense. (Assistant coach Mike Longabardi) has been preaching that for awhile now. Playing and then actually seeing it is a whole different story,” he said. “We’ve just got to sharpen things up and get back to how we were. We got to get better to make our situation better.”

The Suns (36-28) trail both Memphis and Dallas by two games for the seventh and eighth seed, respectively, in the West. They are four-back of six-seed Golden State.

The Suns play at Boston on Friday, the start of a three-game, four-day road trip.

“You can’t get down. You got to keep playing,” Hornacek said. “If we can get playing like we were before when Eric was here and we get the energy back, we’ll still have a shot.”