Ugly loss to the Grizzlies should end the Suns’ playoff rhetoric

Jan 31, 2017, 12:13 AM | Updated: 11:00 am
Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley (11) shoots over Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe during the fir...
Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley (11) shoots over Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Jan. 30, 2017, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
(AP Photo/Matt York)
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It wasn’t a good sign the Sun playing most within his abilities Monday night was a 19-year-old rookie known for his over-aggressiveness and lack of a basketball experience.

Marquese Chriss scored a career-high 20 points as Phoenix fell 115-96 to the Memphis Grizzlies. To boot, it came in one of the team’s few nationally-televised games. By the end of the night, TNT studio analyst and former Suns player Charles Barkley doubted his “Inside the NBA” postgame show had an audience.

“Nobody’s that stupid,” Barkley said. “Not even family and friends.”

A four-game losing streak has the Suns sitting only above the Brooklyn Nets in the NBA standings with a 15-33 record, and a 5-4 streak at the start of January couldn’t look further away in the rear-view mirror. Yet, it was less than a week ago that stretch had Suns general manager Ryan McDonough speaking of the possibility of playoffs on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM’s Burns and Gambo show.

He said the rest of the pre-trade deadline schedule would dictate how the Suns acted as the deadline neared.

“If we’re within striking distance of the eighth seed at the trade deadline, that will probably help determine our approach. And if we’re not, if we’re not a viable playoff contender, that will probably determine it the other way,” McDonough said.

As Suns fans heard that statement — one McDonough had to make to keep fan interest and not to indicate he might be desperate to trade his veterans — they worried the team would take a path with an eye on making the playoffs. Instead, Suns’ losses to Minnesota and a pair to Denver voided concerns the team would take a win-now direction.

Over the last 10 games since Jan. 10, the Suns are tied with the Nets with the worst defense in the NBA, allowing 114.4 points per 100 possessions.

Monday’s effort confirmed the end of playoff rhetoric.

Struggling for the second time in eight days following a 40-point effort, Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe went 3-of-11 from the floor, taking ill-advised threes and turning the ball over six times. Opposite Bledsoe, Memphis point guard Mike Conley scored a career-high 38 to go with nine assists on 12-of-18 shooting, which included seven made threes.

The Grizzlies shot 16-for-28 from beyond the arc and the plodding, halfcourt-focused team burned the younger Suns 20-7 in fastbreak points after Memphis coach Dave Fizdale proclaimed his team shouldn’t get in a track meet with Phoenix prior to the game — Bledsoe’s second-half turnover and sulking instead of getting back to cover a Conley transition three epitomized the ugly evening.

Meanwhile, guard Devin Booker went 6-for-20 for 22 points in 39 minutes as the Suns played him in garbage time, helping him extend his streak of 20-point games to 13.

The Suns’ fiercest fighter, P.J. Tucker, excused himself from the game in the second half with two quick technicals after picking up a reaching foul.

If any Suns fans feared this team would again try to skip steps and build themselves into a winner — all at the expense of the possibility at high pick in a fairly strong draft — those worries were likely quelled Monday.

The storylines have quickly shifted to the trade deadline and the draft.

Even head coach Earl Watson hinted at the latter in the postgame media session. Asked about Chriss’ big night, the Suns coach said it’s on Chriss to prove he’s the power forward of the future.

“We had a conversation with him today,” Watson said. “You have to solidify being a starting power forward on that team.

“I revert back to Russell Westbrook. At the end of his first year, OKC wanted to take Ricky Rubio at the point position,” Watson said. “Russ made it evident that he felt like he was the point guard of the future. I remember this like it was yesterday, I was on the team. He had a quote: ‘He said, if you take Ricky Rubio in the same draft, trade me.’ So they said, ‘OK, we’ll take James Harden.’ You have to solidify your position, you have to be aggressive about it right now.”

Save for perhaps Booker, Chriss is joined by the rest of the Suns in a position with everything to prove as the front office looks beyond this season.

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