Losing is one thing, but after back-to-back loses to the Celtics and Spurs the Phoenix Suns were frustrated and to be frank angry that teams felt they could come in here and just "disrespect" them on the court.
"I told you at (Training) Camp," Jermaine O'Neal told Markieff Morris after the loss to San Antonio. "Teams change the way they play you depending on your record."
That is the truth as told by a veteran who has played on good, great, and bad teams throughout his 17 year NBA career. O'Neal knows how teams operate through an 82 game season. This season in particular has been a poor one for the Suns so teams are coming here expecting a win, resting stars, and showing no respect for a team that is 20 games under .500.
"I think after a while you reach a point in the season where you get tired of being pushed around," Jared Dudley told me after the game. "Losing close games, guys take that as a pride issue and we are trying to take it to the next level."
In a losing season the only way to get better is to lose games, but what about having some pride?
Having that pride sometimes results in a technical foul (or two) as evident by last night where O'Neal and Markieff Morris did not back down from situations against the Atlanta Hawks. On the season O'Neal has not been one to back down from a challenge, the same could be said throughout his entire career, and he has added a toughness to the bench that is sorely lacking that edge as a whole.
"At times, things happen like that," Interim Head Coach Lindsey Hunter commented on the chippiness. "Our guys didn't back down and as a team you have to protect one another out there. We cannot allow people to provoke us to stop playing the game. We are basketball players and we have to be that first."
The team as a whole did not back down from situations on the court with their opponent or in the huddles with each other.
As Dudley was trying to get Luis Scola to understand in the heat of the moment, they need to play more unselfish on offense. In that particular sequence Scola had a few shots at the basket, but they came off of offensive rebounds and he was trying to mute a loud Hawks run. Those are the moments where leaders step up verbally for their team, they get in teammates ears and, at times, in their faces when they see something on the court that needs to be rectified.
The skirmish was described as "only basketball related" by Dudley after the game.
There is a line between dirty, rough basketball and not backing down when challenged. With the way this season has progressed the Suns have every right to be frustrated and play unnecessarily rough basketball to express that, but that does not win games.
All good defensive teams have that balance.
As Dudley said, they are trying to make defense their "staple" while holding teams to around "80-85 points and then getting out in transition." With the current roster and the lack of a go-to scorer on the offensive end, playing tough defense is their only option to play competitive, winning basketball and score points with consistency.
Not backing down with a technical foul here and there is one way to not back down while keeping their composure enough to win a game. That is Phoenix Suns Basketball.
When the Phoenix Suns hit bottom with a 13-28 record, something clearly had to change. Head coach Alvin Gentry had been stripped of his top-end talent over the years, and the players no longer fit the long-time offensive and defensive schemes.
While former #2 pick Michael Beasley got more run than his play deserved, rookie Kendall Marshall and third-year wing player Wesley Johnson (former #4 pick overall) were not yet getting any rotation time. Second-year player Markieff Morris was playing his usual 20 minutes per game, but had shown little progression from his rookie season.
To be fair to Gentry, his mission had been to win games and one rarely wins games by sitting the veterans in favor of untested youth.
But a 13-28 record, worst in the West, thanks to a below average offense and almost-worst defense was not getting it done.
Lindsey Hunter's primary plan as interim coach was to change the mindset of the players, to instill a level of effort and defensive intensity that had helped him last 17 years in the NBA as a backup point guard.
And with no requirement to win every game, Hunter was afforded the opportunity to mix and match players until he could find consistency in effort. He used Michael Beasley as a recent example.
"I don't give [Beasley] more of a leash because of his skill level," Hunter said. "I hold him to the same standards, especially defensively. I know offensively we're all going to make mistakes. We're going to sometimes force shots or not make the right play. I can live with that.
"My thing with Mike has always been defensively. When you're engaged defensively, then I don't worry about you offensively because I know if he's engaged, he'll do some things. But when he's two or three steps slow and not recognizing a rotation or a coverage, then it's hard and it puts a strain on everybody."
Hunter has used variations of that same comment about any and all players on the Suns roster in the past month. He just wants consistency on defense, and believes that offense comes naturally when the defense is engaged.
Unexpectedly, from the fans' point of view, two players have taken advantage of this new opportunity more than anyone else.
In the last seven games since the All-Star break, Wesley Johnson has reappeared from the shadows of the end of the bench to a major role in the rotation.
"The opportunity was given to me," he said. "So I just have to go out there and take advantage of it."
In three of the seven games, all wins, Johnson has played at least 29 minutes and produced at a high level. 14 and 8 against Portland (road), 14 and 9 with 3 assists and 2 steals against his former teammates from Minnesota (home), and 15 and 6 with 2 steals against Atlanta last night.
While those efforts were dotted among lesser outings, this is the biggest impact that Johnson has provided - by far - all season long. And when you watch him out there on both ends of the court, you have to wonder if the Suns could have used that talent earlier in the season.
"Without a doubt, I was definitely frustrated with it," he said of no playing time earlier in the season. "I just feel good being out there playing."
And so do Suns fans when he's on the court. Maybe he will be remembered for more than just his smile after all.
When the Suns acquired Markieff's brother, many fans scoffed at the marketing "diversion" and immediately discounted Marcus' possible impact on the game.
Yet last night he poured in 4 three-pointers on his way to his best outing in 5 games: 16 points, 5 rebounds and 2 steals despite learning the plays on the fly. Literally.
"As you can tell, I know none of the plays," he said. "And [Markieff is] telling me the plays while it's happening. Just the connection, it's there for me."
He has made 6 of 10 three pointers in 5 games for the Suns, a welcome sight to a team that ranks close to last in the league in that category.
"It's easier. They spread the floor," Dragic said of Johnson and Mook Morris. "The defense doesn't want to help so much in the paint. That's what we need. It's easier for everybody to have an inside-outside game."
With four days off, let's hope that doesn't break the momentum.
Many Suns fans want the team to lose every game for the rest of the season, but the players have no interest in that proposition. Zero. Nada.
Players want to win games.
To that end, there was a heated argument between Dudley and Scola going into a third-quarter timeout, which carried over to coach Hunter and Dudley during the timeout itself.
After the Suns had taken a 50-40 lead in the third, the Hawks made a mini-run while Scola attempted and missed 3 shots in 4 Suns possessions. The shots were wild sidearms and double-pumps in the middle of the Hawks defense and spearheaded by one of the league's best defenders in Al Horford.
"I just told Luis to pass a little bit more," Dudley said of their argument. "The whole point is that we've got to be more of an unselfish, better ball movement team. They were going on a run and it escalated."
The Hawks had closed the gap from 50-40 to 50-47 during that run of Scola misses. Hunter got involved in the argument once it reached the sideline and Dudley did not return to the game. Scola played a few more minutes in the third, and then did not return to the game either.
"After a while, you get tired of being pushed around, tired of losing close games," Dudley said about the Suns' newfound tougher exterior and scrappy play - even amongst each other.
The fact that Scola and Dudley both sat out the fourth, though, was more about the play of the Morris boys and Johnson than anything they did in that timeout.
Three wins in a row for a team vying for a top spot in the lottery can be frustrating, but it is showing the steady improvement of the roster as a whole helping in the evaluations for the 2013-2014 roster.
It was just 48 hours ago the Phoenix Suns (20-39) were on cloud nine after two big overtime wins on back-to-back nights. Now they host the Atlanta Hawks (33-23) looking for the trifecta before another long break off.
So far this season the Suns have four total two game winning streaks and even one four game winning streak that they put together after a dismal seven game losing streak. Getting a win here would give them their second longest streak of the season and push them behind four teams in the win column if you are looking further out to the NBA Draft Lottery.
Last season the team had six two-game winning streaks, three three-game, one four-game, and zero streaks of more than four games.
The old days of going on runs with the offense to win five, six, seven, or more game winning streaks seems to be gone with the current roster. Defense can win games and obviously has proven it can win Championships, but the transition from offense to defense struggles to win games in general.
What they are going to have to combat are the Hawks ability to knock down the three and their opportunistic defense.
This year the Hawks are fourth in the league in three-point makes (38.3%) and force 15.2 turnovers per game. They are able to get teams out of their rhythm and finish off the plays with backbreaking threes. Athletically they are great at imposing their will combining for 12.8 blocks and steals as a team.
Both of those have to a major concern for a Suns team that has turned the ball over 172 times over the past 10 games (17.2 per game) and on the season they are shooting 32.5% from three. That is good for second to last in the NBA in terms of shooting the three and one of the worst turnover rates in the league as well. The Suns deficiencies play into the Hawks strengths, but there is no doubt the team is playing better as of late and has a punchers chance tonight.
(Recent) History Lesson
These two teams lock up for the first time this season, both featuring a total of five new starters collectively meaning that the last few seasons games do not hold a lot of merit.
Head-to-Head (past four seasons including Playoffs)
Suns: 102.6 PPG (6 wins)
Hawks: 98.1 PPG (2 wins)
Over the course of the last four seasons the Suns have won the lions share of the games, but all the games finished within a 10 point spread and were close affairs. Of course these are not the Suns and Hawks of the last four years. There is no Steve Nash and no Joe Johnson. This season the Hawks are averaging a little over 96 points per game and the Suns a little over 94, so a close game in the mid-to-late 90's is realistic.
Josh Smith vs. Suns: 17.1 PPG 8.3 RPG 2.4 APG 2.0 BPG 47.1 FG% (16 games)
Michael Beasley vs. Hawks: 17.9 PPG 6.7 RPG 1.4 APG 51.1 FG% (9 games)
Smith scores the third most points on a per game basis against the Suns, small sample compared to conference rivals, but he feasts against the purple and orange. That is not shocking as the four position for the Suns has not been the same since the departure of Amare Stoudemire.
There is Good Beasley and there is Bad Beasley, against the Hawks, it is more Good Beasley. He averages the third most points against the dirty red birds, which is a positive sign for a potential offensive burst from the enigmatic talent.
Potential Hawks Inactives: Lou Williams
They are both young point guards that have gotten better over their time in the NBA, Dragic in his fifth year and Teague in his fourth.
The Hawks have slowly handed the keys to the offense over to Teague as he has been given more responsibility every year. This season he has broken out as one of the teams best, and most valuable players every night. Dragic was brought in to be the best player on the Suns and he has been that. Each is very young and still developing. From a pure athletic standpoint this will be a fun match-up to watch.
Interesting Stat: 0-7
Under interim head coach Lindsey Hunter the Suns are winless when they have one day of rest or practice between games. On back-to-backs or any other situation the team is 7-4. Tonight's game is on one day rest.
Meaningless Stat: +/-
On the season only Shannon Brown (+1.2), Jermaine O'Neal (+1.6), and Gortat (+1.2) have a positive plus minus verses their opponents. Every other player on the roster is either even (Dudley) or a negative (11 others) this season. There is that.