PHOENIX — If they thought they had arrived after last season’s unexpected 48-win season, the Phoenix Suns just received a rude wake-up call.
“I don’t feel like right now we’re playing with that chip on our shoulder,” said coach Jeff Hornacek after the Suns’ 93-90 loss to the lowly Orlando Magic in front of 15,558 at US Airways Center.
The big story heading into the game was the return of Channing Frye, who played for the Suns from 2009-14 before signing a four-year, $32 million contract with the Magic in the offseason.
But the Arizona Wildcat alum was content to allow his teammates to do the work, as Orlando’s four other starters scored in double figures, led by 21 points from Tobias Harris. Nikola Vucevic added 18, including six in the game’s final minute.
Thanks to turnovers and poor defense, the Magic (7-12) built a 74-58 lead in the fourth quarter. The Suns (10-8) put together a furious rally in the final minutes, trimming the lead to 83-80 with just over a minute to play thanks to three crucial free throws from Markieff Morris.
But a short jumper by Vucevic in the paint followed by a technical foul on Hornacek, who argued Vucevic traveled on the play, pushed Orlando’s lead back to six with 42 seconds left.
Phoenix had one more chance following a 3-pointer by Gerald Green with 2.2 seconds left that cut the lead to 91-90. But after Evan Fournier hit a pair of free throws with 1.6 seconds remaining, Green collected a long inbounds pass and appeared to attempt a pass rather than try what would have been a long 3-pointer that could have tied the game. The ball flew out of bounds as the final horn sounded.
“I don’t know what it was. It’s like we were playing the same way that we were playing in Denver (a 122-97 loss Friday) but just kept going,” Green said.
“I think everybody in that locker room was kind of shocked … we never really thought we were going to lose this game.”
After the loss, Hornacek said the team appears to have lost the edge that propelled it to last season’s surprising success.
“They were out to prove everybody wrong last year when we were only supposed to win 19 games, and so every night they went out there with a different attitude,” he said. “Now I think for whatever reason, maybe it happens that we think that we don’t necessarily have to do that — if we just play our game and play well, we’ll win the game. It doesn’t happen like that in this league.”
Frye, who said he appreciated the ovation he received from Suns fans during pregame introductions, said the Magic put together a great team performance to end a four-game losing streak.
“Today it felt like we were really getting out and pushing the ball and playing unselfish,” he said. “Even though we didn’t make a lot of shots, I felt people were still touching the ball.”
Green said the Suns have felt the absence of Isaiah Thomas, who is averaging a team-high 15.5 points per game but missed his third straight game Sunday with a right ankle injury.
“We really miss Isaiah. We missed him in the Denver game and we missed him tonight,” he said. “Hopefully he’ll be available for the next game but we know he’s going to take his time to get healthy, and the training staff is going to do a good job to get him healthy.”
The Suns opened the game 6-of-7 from the field but went 10-of-34 the rest of the first half, and the Magic closed the half with an 18-3 run to take a 52-39 advantage into halftime.
The Suns came to life with a 10-2 run to open the third quarter but blew three point-blank layup attempts later in the quarter to quell their momentum. Frye’s first and only points came via a 3-pointer with under a minute to play in the quarter to stretch Orlando’s lead back to 69-56.
“Orlando, they played hard for 48 minutes. You’ve got to give them credit. We played hard for about 12 minutes in the game. That was about it,” Hornacek said.
“We want to continually go through the motions and think that we’re just going to beat teams, not get dirty and not get hit and get scratched up, whatever it takes. The guys saw that, in the fourth quarter when they play that way, then they’re pretty good.”
With the late rally, the Suns narrowly avoided their lowest point total of the season against an Orlando team that came in allowing 100.6 points per game. Phoenix’s season low came in an 88-86 win at the Pistons on Nov. 19.
They didn’t get a victory, but the 15,000-plus in attendance Sunday got to witness this ridiculous Gerald Green dunk in the second quarter.
Goran Dragic scored 22 points to match a season high, with 13 of those points coming in the game’s first 15 minutes.
Markieff Morris filled up the stat sheet with 18 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists – though he would have added to his assist total if not for a couple of blown third-couple layups.
Miles Plumlee was a perfect 6-of-6 from the field for 12 points. The center added five rebounds and a steal in 25 minutes.
The Suns picked up their defense in the second half, limiting the Magic to 41 points and drawing several offensive fouls.
Eric Bledsoe picked up his NBA-high sixth technical foul of the season after a reach-in foul in the first quarter. He was whistled for eight technical fouls in his first four NBA seasons combined.
Alex Len was shut out on the scoreboard for the second straight game. After going 0-for-2 from the field in Friday’s blowout loss at Denver, the second-year center went 0-for-6 from the floor in 16 minutes Sunday. Len came in averaging 5.8 points per game this season.
Turnovers continue to be a large problem for Phoenix. With 19 giveaways Sunday, the Suns have turned the ball over 89 times in their last five games, an average of 17.8 per game.
STAT OF THE GAME
The Suns could have used Frye’s 3-point shooting Sunday, as they went just 7-of-26 (26.9 percent) from beyond the arc. They came in shooting 36.3 percent from 3-point range for the season.
HE SAID IT
“It’s without a doubt so special to me. I try not to get all anxiety and emotional, but coming in, my wife actually flew in from Florida with me to come watch this game. It means a lot to play here and get respect form the fans here. I’m always going to be a Suns fan.” -Frye
Along with Frye, former Arizona Wildcat forward Aaron Gordon was supposed to make his return to the Grand Canyon State on Sunday — but the fourth pick in the 2014 NBA Draft was sidelined with a foot injury two weeks ago, and there’s no timetable for his return. Gordon declared for the NBA after one season in Tucson. He’s averaging 5.8 points in 11 games with Orlando.
The Suns will look for a season sweep of the Indiana Pacers when they visit US Airways Center on Tuesday. Phoenix beat the Pacers 106-83 in Indianapolis on Nov. 22.
Tip-off is at 7 p.m. The pregame show will begin 30 minutes earlier on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.