PORTLAND -- Normally, it’s barely newsworthy when an NBA coach says he needs to look at cutting his rotation, particularly after a loss.
But this was Alvin Gentry saying it -- the same Alvin Gentry who used a 10-man rotation all last season while taking his Phoenix team to a surprise conference finals appearance. The Suns’ second unit shredded all comers a season ago, but in Tuesday night’s 106-99 loss to Portland it submitted yet another disappointing effort that had Gentry summoning the starters to return sooner than he ever intended.
“I don’t know if we can play as many guys as we’re playing,” Gentry said. “That’s the bottom line. We have too many perimeter guys that we’re trying to work into the lineup. The numbers don’t work.”
The Suns led 75-69 after three quarters when Goran Dragic replaced Steve Nash to start the fourth. And that’s when the game went off the rails for Phoenix. Two Dragic turnovers yielded a 10-1 Portland run and a tie game; Dragic got the hook after just 2:28 and Steve Nash came back in.
“We gave it all back in four possessions,” Gentry said.
Long-term, this can’t work. Nash played 39 minutes, something he was asked to do just once after January last season and once in 16 playoff games; the goal in Phoenix is to keep him closer to 30. Nash contributed six turnovers to an unusually ragged offensive fourth quarter for the normally hyper-efficient Suns, and it’s fair to wonder if the early return was a contributing factor.
"I hate putting Steve back in the game,'" Gentry said. "It’s not good when Steve has to play the last nine-and-a-half minutes of the game. I need [the starters] playing six minutes to finish the game."
Dragic was supposed to allow that to happen, but he struggled with turnovers (two) once again -- including an unforced travel near midcourt that helped bring on Tuesday's quick hook. Entering the game, only two of the league's 63 qualifying point guards coughed up it more per possession used than Dragic’s 17.9 percent; accordingly, the mile-long rope he was given a year ago can now be measured in angstroms.
"I don’t know if we’re not putting him in the right situations or what," Gentry said, "but we’ve got to get him back where he’s being really effective. We have to take a good hard look at who we have out there with him and is it the right combination."
Dragic said the second unit’s spacing and position on the floor have both been problems, inviting more company on his drives. It’s easy to see how that might be. With former pick-and-roll partner Channing Frye promoted to the starting lineup and non-shooters like Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress joining him off the bench, Dragic is facing packed-in defenses that don’t respect the threat of his teammates' jumpers.
As a result, Gentry is contemplating a new rotation. One strongly suspects Childress will become the odd man out in that arrangement, and that Gentry will lean more heavily on Jared Dudley with a nine-man group.
Suns fans can take solace in the glass-half-full perspective that this game was, at least in part, a loss to the law of averages. Phoenix led the league in free throw "defense" entering the game, with opponents making just 71.7 percent of their tries, but Portland converted an astounding 32-of-33 from the stripe. A more typical performance would have had us heading to overtime.
Of course, that would have just been five more minutes of wear and tear on Nash, Grant Hill and the Suns’ other veteran starters. Until the Suns can get more reliable production from a hit-and-miss second unit, they may be better off settling things in the first 48 minutes.