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Suns Strokes: Porous defense bites Phoenix again in loss to Pelicans

Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe (2) fouls New Orleans Pelicans guard Ish Smith in the first quarter during an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

PHOENIX — Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek didn’t have a magic scheme to use or adjustment to make playing the New Orleans Pelicans for the second time in three games. After Phoenix fell 122-116 on the road Sunday, the message was simple.

“The change in the gameplan is let’s play some defense tonight,” Hornacek said.

That was before the game.

The Suns hardly improved in that respect during a 120-114 loss to the Pelicans in Talking Stick Resort Arena on Wednesday night, blowing a 17-point lead in the first half.

New Orleans shot 52 percent for the game and 50 percent in the fourth quarter, scoring 30 or more points in the second, third and fourth quarters.

“Usually, we say if you give up two of them it’s a loss and we gave up three of them,” Hornacek said afterward. “In this league, you can never relax. I don’t care if you’re up by 25 in the second half. It’s easy to come back.”

Phoenix has now lost three games in a row to fall to 7-8 on they year.

Most concerning for Phoenix are the late-game struggles.

Eric Bledsoe, who returned from a one-game absence because of a knee strain, twice got to the rim and twice missed contested shots from three feet. Meanwhile, the defense couldn’t get the necessary stops, be it struggling to contain former Suns guard Ish Smith or keeping Anthony Davis off the offensive glass in the fourth quarter.

“Tonight we beat ourselves. That’s not luck, we beat ourselves,” forward P.J. Tucker said. “They played a great game but we let them do what they wanted.

“We’re getting back into our old ways of late. Not finishing games, giving teams easy baskets, bad communication. It’s not just so happen that we’re losing close games. This doesn’t have to be a close game. We let it be.”

THE GOOD

– Phoenix forced three turnovers and made Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry take two early timeouts as it built a 16-6 lead just more than five minutes into the game. This, with center Tyson Chandler on the bench and Alex Len starting. Brandon Knight had 10 of those points and also added two steals.

– Speaking of which, Knight finished the first quarter with 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting but would go without a field goal until just more than a minute remained in the third quarter. He would finish with 29 points and 10 assists.

– Jon Leuer scored 13 fourth quarter points in a back-and-forth between he and Smith. Leuer finished with 20 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.

– When New Orleans took a six-point lead early in the third quarter, it was T.J. Warren and Leuer who helped Phoenix reclaim a 75-72 lead with a 9-0 run. Warren finished with 18 points and six of those came during that spurt.

– Following a 28-turnover performance in San Antonio, Phoenix shored up those forced offensive issues Wednesday. by turning it over 12 times total.

– The Suns excelled from the three-point line (17 makes) against the Pelicans in their meeting over the weekend but scored just 22 points in the paint. That was a win for the Pelicans, who purposely lived with the threes and by keeping Phoenix out of the paint. The second time around, the Suns scored 28 paint points in the first half and finished with 54.

THE BAD

– Davis is still a monster. In the first half, Markieff Morris made a quick catch and behind-the-back spin move to get a step on the lanky big man, but Davis recovered enough to get the tip of his finger on the shot, turning the impressive play into a scoreless one. Davis closed with 26 points and 17 rebounds.

– The obvious bad news: Phoenix couldn’t hang on to a 17-point first-half lead. Smith drilled a three-pointer at the buzzer to make the Suns’ lead just 60-58 at halftime, and the former Suns backup point guard finished with 20 points and 11 assists.

– Bench forward Ryan Anderson torched Phoenix for 29 points on Sunday, and Hornacek admitted to going to small ball because P.J. Tucker was the only player who could keep up with him then. Knowing that didn’t change Anderson’s production Wednesday. He scored 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting while matched up mostly against Tucker and Mirza Teletovic.

– With 29 seconds left, the Suns’ pick-and-roll defense broke down as Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday got to the rim. But a missed shot allowed Anthony Davis to jump over two Suns for a tip-in that gave New Orleans a 114-112 lead with 21 seconds left. Davis would haunt Phoenix late, when Bledsoe twice got looks at shots near the rim but once got no call when he ran into Dante Cunningham. On a final try to tie it at 114, Bledsoe pump-faked but missed a shot with Davis lurking near him.

HE SAID IT

“For a guy that you kind of picked off the waiver wire, you can’t really ask him to do very much more than he has. You like for a guy like that, if you know him at all, you really pull for him to do well.” — Alvin Gentry on Ish Smith before the game.

NOTED

– On the inactive list was Suns center Tyson Chandler, who stayed at home with an upper respiratory issue. Alex Len started in his place and in 16 minutes scored two points and grabbed eight rebounds. He also blocked two shots and had two steals.

– Knight tallied his third double-double of the season, all of which have seen him score at least 29 points.

– Leuer’s double-double was his fourth in his career, and his 12-rebound evening tied a career high.

– The string of consecutive 20-point games came to a close for Bledsoe, who returned from a knee strain after missing the San Antonio game on Monday. The Suns guard finished with 18 points and seven assists on 5-of-16 shooting.

– Prior to the game, Phoenix announced the official signing of point guard Bryce Cotton, who was playing with the Austin Spurs in the D-League. Cotton was not active.

UP NEXT

Phoenix takes Thanksgiving off but returns to Talking Stick Resort Arena on Friday night for a 7:30 p.m. showdown with the 16-0 Golden State Warriors, who will also be rested.

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