The Extra Pass: Suns struggling to stay in postseason picture after recent, disappointing slide

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NEW YORK — No matter how the Phoenix Suns finish the 2013-14 season, the year will be considered an overachievement by every metric possible.

But after spending so much of the season as one of the league’s feel-good stories, firmly entrenched in the Western Conference playoff picture for most of it, falling out of postseason contention and finishing in the lottery as many predicted would be supremely disappointing.

The Suns find themselves a game and a half behind Memphis for the final playoff spot in the West after getting rolled by the Nets on Monday, in a contest where Phoenix brought nowhere near the required effort — something that was evident from the game’s early moments.

“It sure looked like [a difficult night was ahead] right from the start,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said afterward. “The energy level wasn’t where it was in the [previous game, a win in Toronto] — missing easy shots right off the bat, timeouts. They came out of timeouts and didn’t run the play we had on the board, didn’t know where to go. I just didn’t think their heads were in it.”

The final numbers weren’t as bad as they were at the game’s lowest point, when the Nets had built a lead of as many as 23 points in the second half and were threatening to finish the game shooting better than 60 percent from the field — a mark they would have hit easily if not for too many third quarter heat-checks, and some rough shooting from Alan Anderson and Marcus Thornton that dragged the average down.

Phoenix looked out of sync offensively all night long, but the defense was even worse as Brooklyn had amassed 44 points in the paint by halftime while shooting better than 67 percent over the game’s first 24 minutes. The missing cohesion defensively, along with 11 first half turnovers were an indication to Hornacek that his team wasn’t all there in this one.

“That’s all lack of focus,” he said. “If you don’t mentally prepare for the game, thinking about it all day long you’ll have the slip-ups — the lazy passes, not holding a guy off to get open. It’s all the little things in a game that help you win, and we did none of ‘em.”

The Suns haven’t been doing those things consistently in quite some time. Back on Feb. 22, Phoenix was sixth in the Conference standings with a record of 33-21, but eight losses in their last 13 games now have them on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Hornacek has talked to the team about games that could impact their playoff positioning before, but he’s wary of continuing to do so because it hasn’t yielded the desired results.

“We try not to talk about it, because last time we talked about playoff positioning — just, ‘hey, we’ve got to win this game for playoffs’ — we played kind of like this again,” Hornacek said. “So I don’t know if that was pressure that got to ‘em tonight, but we just didn’t have the effort, for whatever reason.”

Goran Dragic, who’s played at an All-Star level even though he just missed the cut for an appearance in the midesason exhibition, was limited against the Nets by foul trouble and couldn’t get into a rhythm. But he didn’t think the pressure of the playoffs was getting to him or his teammates to the point where it’s impacting their performance.

“We talk about that we want to be a playoff team, of course,” Dragic said. “But I don’t think that because of that we’re losing those games.”

Dragic instead pointed to the teams the Suns have been losing to — playoff teams, to be exact, in five of the eight that have come during this recent slide.

“We didn’t shoot the ball well and our defense has been a problem, but we’ve had a tough stretch,” Dragic said. “We played against teams that are playoff teams. We tried to battle; some games we lost really close, by three or four points. It’s just a tough stretch for us, but we’re not going to complain. We still can make the playoffs. We’ve still got 15 games left to play and hopefully we’re going to regroup and try to get a lot of wins.”

The schedule is difficult to end the season, however, with six of the final eight against teams currently in playoff position in the West.

Phoenix entered the year in rebuilding mode, and the fact that they’ve experienced so much success in spite of that isn’t lost on them. But with a chance at the playoffs having gone from a faint dream to a reality that’s become somewhat expected, missing out on that is going to hurt — especially if it happens because of lackluster efforts like the one we saw against the Nets.

“Some nights you just have a bad night, you flush it down the toilet and go on to the next one,” Hornacek said. “There’s nothing you can do about this one. We’ve got a couple of games at home against teams where we should win if we come out and play, but if we come out and play like we did tonight, we could lose those games, too.”

Dwyane Wade yanks Justin Anderson to ground, Anderson responds with blow to Wade’s back while falling (video)

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There should be no place in the game for potentially injury-causing moves like Dwyane Wade yanking Justin Anderson‘s arm and pulling him to the floor. That’s not an appropriate response to Anderson’s (perhaps overly) physical defense.

But I also wouldn’t be surprised if Anderson – who delivered a blow to Wade’s back while falling – received additional punishment beyond the double technical fouls issued during the 76ers’ Game 3 win over the Heat last night.

Hassan Whiteside frustrated he’s a non-factor for Heat again

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MIAMI (AP) — Hassan Whiteside‘s numbers are down. He’s trying not to be the same way.

Game 3 of the Eastern Conference first-round series was difficult on many levels for Miami’s center. He was in foul trouble throughout, finished with only five points and was largely a nonfactor in his team’s 128-108 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night.

Whiteside has a total of 11 points in three playoff games this season, after averaging 14 points in the regular season.

“It’s just different, man. I feel like our offense is a lot different,” Whiteside said. “I’m not involved in as many dribble-handoffs as I was and post-ups as I was during the regular season. That’s what Coach wants. Coach wants me to just be in a corner and set picks. I mean, that’s what he wants so I’ve just got to trust it.”

For his part, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said he’s trying to find ways to get Whiteside involved.

“That’s part of my job, is to figure it out,” Spoelstra said.

The Heat trail the series 2-1, with Game 4 on Saturday afternoon. Whiteside finished with only one field-goal attempt in Game 3, an alley-oop lob from Dwyane Wade that got turned into a dunk in the fourth quarter, seconds before Whiteside was taken out of the game for good. He had a bad turnover shortly before the dunk, and Spoelstra sent Kelly Olynyk to the scorer’s table almost immediately after that miscue.

“I want to get more minutes out there,” Whiteside said. “I’m going to keep trusting Coach’s decision-making. Even with the fouls I still could have been out there. I wouldn’t have fouled out.”

Whiteside played only 13 minutes – five minutes in the first quarter that ended with his second foul, 2 1/2 minutes in second that ended with foul No. 3, 3 1/2 minutes in the third that led to foul No. 4, then two minutes in the fourth where he had two turnovers.

Meanwhile, 76ers center Joel Embiid scored 23 points in his return after a 10-game absence to recover from surgery to repair a broken left orbital bone.

“They run enough plays for him that he’s going to get his numbers,” Whiteside said. “I don’t really get caught up in that. He lives a big-man’s dream. He gets the ball, he gets the post-ups, he posts up every other play and they pretty much run a lot of stuff through him and Ben Simmons.”

Whiteside’s inference was clear: He’d love to get that many touches.

He was asked how he can contribute in this series, and paused before answering.

“I’m trying to figure that out right now,” Whiteside said. “I’m trying to figure it out. I guess I’ve got to crash, try to score off offensive rebounds maybe, keep running the floor and try to get alley-oops. But other than that, it’s a lot different than the regular season. It’s a lot different.”

Report: Stan Van Gundy to meet with Pistons’ owner next week

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After a disappointing 39-43 season that has the Pistons sitting at home watching the playoffs — even after trading for Blake Griffin mid-season, — the sense around the league is that coach and GM Stan Van Gundy is going to lose one if not both of those titles. He’s expected to no longer be the team’s president of basketball operations, whether he stays on to coach the team is another question.

The meeting where Van Gundy’s fate is decided will come next week, reports Adrian Wojnarowski at ESPN.

Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy have set a meeting for next week to discuss Van Gundy’s future with the franchise, league sources told ESPN.

The two had initially planned to sit down late this week, but the meeting was pushed back, leaving the Pistons organization to await word on how, if at all, the franchise’s structure could be altered.

Feuling the speculation on Van Gundy’s status is the fact that former super agent Arn Tellem works for the Pistons on the business side. He was brought in to help transition the franchise to the new building where it plays in downtown Detroit, but with that done the sense is Gores will give him a different job, running the basketball side.

If he loses his GM title, would Van Gundy stay on as coach?

Whoever sigs in the big chair has his work cut out for him. With that Griffin trade, the Pistons are basically capped out. Making changes to the current roster will not be easy.

Report: Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer no longer considering Suns job

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There’s been a lot of talk as the coaching carousel ramps up, long before the NBA season is even over. Now, we know one coach won’t be heading to the Phoenix Suns: Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer.

Budenholzer was reportedly among one of the candidates for the Suns job, but according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi the Hawks coach has decided not to pursue the position after being given the opportunity to do so.

The Suns coaching search still includes current interim coach Jay Triano and former Memphis Grizzlies head man David Fizdale.

Via ESPN:

Budenholzer met with Suns general manager Ryan McDonough and owner Robert Sarver early this week, but there was never traction on reaching a contract agreement as the week wore on, league sources said.

As the Suns kept interviewing candidates — including David Fizdale and interim coach Jay Triano — Budenholzer informed the Suns on Thursday that he would no longer be a candidate for the job, sources said.

Phoenix fired Earl Watson just three games into the season. Budenholzer had a hefty resume to consider — he won 60 games in Atlanta in 2014-15, heading to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Suns need someone to guide their young star in Devin Booker. Who they choose will influence the direction of their franchise for longer than the next coach may even be around.