In recent years, the Phoenix Suns have been known for, above all else, having an uptempo and elite offense. Win or lose, and no matter the season’s ultimate result, the team never struggled to score with Steve Nash running a descendant of Mike D’Antoni’s offense.
Through two games in this young season, however, offense has been a huge problem for the Suns, and the primary reason behind both of the team’s losses.
At least in Monday’s season opener against the Hornets, Phoenix was in it until the final possession. But in Wednesday’s loss to the Sixers, it wasn’t close. The Suns scored just 34 points in the first half, and opened the second half on the wrong side of a 19-0 run that lasted over six minutes and put the game in the win column for Philadelphia.
The Sixers led by as many as 34 points on the way to a 103-83 victory, one that dropped the Suns to 0-2 for the first time since the 1996-97 season.
It may not yet be time to panic for Phoenix, but the results of the first two games — especially offensively — are certainly cause for concern.
“We’re struggling mightily right now offensively,” Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said afterward. “It’s so hard for us to get a shot off and so hard for us to get into any kind of rhythm.”
As for what’s causing the team’s struggles, Gentry feels it’s a combination of things. But continually getting off to slow starts isn’t helping.
“What has happened is, we’ve had some good looks early on that haven’t gone in, and I think we’ve probably pressed a little bit,” Gentry said. “But we’ve been a good shooting team, we’ve been a good offensive team. We’ve got to try to get that back.”
Making adjustments on the fly is much more difficult this season thanks to the lockout and the compressed regular season schedule that the delay in a labor agreement ended up causing. With the demanding slate of games, Gentry knows that pushing his team extra-hard in practice isn’t necessarily the answer.
“The practice times are very limited,” Gentry said. “We come in here tomorrow, we can’t really have a hard practice. We’ve got two games the next two days, and three in four nights. It’s just one of those things where we have to be smart about it. We have to get better and we have to try to improve, but we also have to be smart — we can’t come in here and have a two and a half hour practice.”
Just how bad has the Suns offense been so far? Small sample size and all that, but through two games, Phoenix is 24th in offensive efficiency at 90.9 points per 100 possessions. And pace-wise, the Suns are tied for 25th at 90.8 possessions per game. Contrast that with even last season’s numbers, where Phoenix finished 8th in pace and 9th in offensive efficiency — in a year when the team finished out of the playoffs — and it’s clear there are serious issues.
I asked Nash what he was seeing out there as the reason for the team’s offensive struggles.
“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things,” Nash said. “A shortened training camp, a lack of familiarity, and also we’re just not real efficient yet. We’re not making shots, we’re not in sync, and some of it is, I think, a product of a shortened camp. Some of it is we’ve got to get a little tougher at times and not look around and hope things will get better. We’ve got to be a little more determined at times.”
In Wednesday’s game, Nash appeared to be more aggressive from the start, uncharacteristically taking matters into his own hands to try to get the team going offensively. But it didn’t go all that well; Nash finished the first quarter with four points, one assist, three turnovers, and two personal fouls, while shooting 2-of-7 from the field in about nine and a half minutes of action. He said in this particular instance, his heavier than usual offensive usage was a result of the way the defense was playing him.
“I think the way they were playing the pick and roll tonight it was important for me to make ’em pay a little bit,” Nash said. “There was some space and I was getting in the lane, but I wasn’t able to get it done tonight. I think that put a lot of pressure on our offense, because then we couldn’t loosen them up or break them down and create easy opportunities.”
Nash finished with one of his worst statistical games in recent memory, going 2-of-11 from the field with just one assist and six turnovers in just over 17 minutes.
The way the Suns are currently constructed, without any one player who can be relied upon to average 20-plus points per game on a regular basis, there’s certainly more of an onus on Nash to create easy opportunities for his teammates. But at some point, there’s only so much Nash can do. At the end of the day, guys have to start knocking down open shots.
In the opener against New Orleans, the Suns shot 5-of-25 from three-point land, but many of those were wide-open looks, so the team feels those shots will eventually start to fall. Against the Sixers, the looks were there too, but more in the mid-range variety: 50 of the Suns’ 80 field goal attempts were from 10 feet out or beyond. And Phoenix only connected on 30 percent of those attempts.
Like all teams, the Suns would like to get more points in the paint, and easier opportunities at the rim. Their opponents haven’t had any problems in that area, with the Sixers scoring 50 of their 103 points in the paint, and the Hornets getting 42 of their 85 there on Monday.
It’s impossible to ignore the Suns’ struggles on offense, especially considering that’s the last place you’d expect to find problems with a team that’s been so prolific in that area in recent years. Nash just hopes things turn around sooner rather than later.
“It’s shown over the two games we’re just struggling offensively to find a connectivity and a rhythm together,” he said. “All you can do is continue to work hard and find a way to be optimistic and positive, and hopefully the breakthrough will come soon.”