Suns Focused on Improving the League's Worst Defense
PHOENIX -- The Suns have never been known for winning based on the strength of their defense. But in the team's run to the Western Conference finals a season ago, Phoenix played with a level of effort and cohesion on that end of the floor that allowed the league's best offense to win games for them, while being no worse than a middle-of-the-pack club defensively.
So far this season, however, it's been a completely different story. The Suns are just 8-9 after 17 games and are dead last in team defense, defensive efficiency, opponents' field-goal percentage, team rebounding and rebound differential. With so many areas that need work, it's not surprising that the team held a film session to kick off Tuesday's practice, before spending the majority of the time on the floor making adjustments.
The good news is, the team seemed open and honest in assessing the defensive issues. The bad news is, they may not quite have the personnel to achieve the desired results.
"A lot of it was mental mistakes," Grant Hill said of the team's defensive troubles. "It's one thing if you stick to the script and execute and do what you're supposed to do defensively; it's hard enough stopping guys in this league. But when you don't, it just breaks down things and makes it very difficult. We had a good look at the film, and film doesn't lie.
"There's no place to go but up, so we'll see what happens."
Steve Nash was equally straightforward in assessing his team's overall performance.
"Our defense has been terrible recently, so we obviously need time at it," Nash said. "We haven't had a lot of practice time lately, and we need time to correct all the details that we've let slide after the first few weeks of the season."
The question of whether the issue was a lack of effort or a lack of understanding of Xs and Os was posed to just about everyone and, to a man, the answer was the same: a little bit of both. But Nash's explanation seemed to make the most sense.
"I think anytime you're not where you're supposed to be there's a breakdown in effort to a degree," Nash said. "Concentration is effort and focus, so I think we've got work to do at both."
The defensive struggles have been evident for a little while, but the team's coaching staff went into a heightened state of alert after the Suns' most recent loss, one in which they allowed 138 points in regulation to the Denver Nuggets.
"We scored 133 points (in the loss to Denver), and 44 in the fourth quarter," head coach Alvin Gentry said. "You should win a game if you do that. That's the bottom line."
The Suns can't win games right now because they can't rebound the basketball. Phoenix is 30th in the league in rebounds per game, after finishing last year tied for sixth. The team is 30th in the league in rebound differential -- getting out-rebounded by almost seven boards per game -- when a season ago, it was tied for 12th. Gentry is convinced that if the team can improve its rebounding, the rest of the issues will take care of themselves.
"Part of our defensive problems right now is the fact that we're not rebounding the basketball," Gentry said. "So we play good defense on the initial play, and they get it back and we have to guard again, that puts us in too tough a situation to try to stop them for a second or a third time.
"We're 30th in the league in field-goal percentage (allowed) and 30th in the league in rebounding, so that's telling me we're giving up second shots, and that's obviously going to push up the field-goal percentage because most of those (second shots) are going to be right at the basket."
Phoenix is largely undersized, so Gentry was asked if he believes there's a ceiling to just how good the rebounding can get, given the makeup of the roster. As you might imagine, he refused to let that become any type of excuse.
"I expect for them to secure the rebound if we have a good defensive possession," Gentry said, in a convincing tone that lets you know he absolutely means it. "We don't have any excuses. If you're undersized, you've got to do a better job of boxing out. If you're a little bit slower, you've got to do a better job of boxing out. So we're not going to use anything as an excuse; we don't have a ceiling. If you put ceilings on your team, I think it gives anybody an out. We expect to secure the ball after we've had a good defensive stance."
One thing that might help is the return to the lineup of starting center Robin Lopez, who has missed the last two weeks with a sprained knee. Gentry believes Lopez could be a real solution, but the big man is still a couple of weeks from returning, and even then, will need some time to get back into the swing of things.
"I think that'll help a lot, obviously, when we get him back -- he's averaging five rebounds in 17 minutes, so if we can keep him on the floor for 28, 32 minutes, maybe that possibility could be a big help in that area," Gentry said. "But even when he gets back, it's going to take another two and a half, three weeks for him to get in any kind of game shape. He's a big guy, and cardio-wise, it's going to take some time."
The rebounding is so critical because of how well the Suns have defended on their opponents' initial possessions. Gentry said they hold teams to right at 40 or 41 percent on those first shots, and of course, when Phoenix gives up second and third chances, that affects morale, which in turn affects effort.
"We've done pretty good in our initial defense, but they shoot it up there and get it back, shoot it and get it back ... that could be a little bit discouraging and disheartening," Gentry said.
With a three-day break between the debacle in Denver and the Suns' next game on the road against the Warriors on Thursday, the extended practice time should allow for some quick fixes, and maybe return some level of immediate improvement in game situations.
But it won't be easy against a Warriors team that is better than average in that department -- currently 12th best in the league in total rebounds per game.