PHOENIX, AZ — When Robert Horry threw a towel at coach Danny Ainge in January 1997, the Phoenix Suns waited all of about two plane flights to trade him to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The fallout from Markieff Morris’s towel throw toward coach Jeff Hornacek during the Suns’ 104-96 loss to the undermanned Denver Nuggets on Wednesday remains to be seen, but it’s clear the team has issues. Serious issues.
Morris’s discontent is just one. He’s been at odds with management since twin brother Marcus was traded this summer, and he’s played only sparingly since he said he was unable to play against the Detroit Pistons on Dec. 2 because of a knee injury.
He was 2-for-8 from the field when he was removed with 9:47 remaining in the game Wednesday, prompting the second towel toss in franchise history.
“He’s mad about not playing,” Hornacek said, acknowledging the incident that was noticed by fans behind the bench. “I look at the stat sheet. He’s a minus-13 in 12 minutes. I took him out. He thinks he’s better than that.
“Well, show me.”
Hornacek tossed the towel back.
The 12-19 Suns haven’t thrown in the towel, and because the Western Conference is down, they appear to have as good a chance as half a dozen other teams to get one of the final two playoff spots.
But not the way they’re playing now.
In the last two weeks, the Suns have lost home games to 11-17 Denver, 11-18 Milwaukee and 11-19 Portland. They’ve lost three straight games and five of six, and they’ve been outscored in the first quarter in nine of their last 11.
“That’s kind of been our kryptonite lately,” guard Ronnie Price said. “We get down in the game and we are trying to play catchup toward the tail end of the game. You can’t play a game that way in the NBA. Teams are just too good.”
Hornacek seemed beyond frustrated in his postgame remarks Wednesday. He wasn’t subtle in his critique on his backcourt after Randy Foye, the Nuggets’ third point guard and the only one healthy enough to play, scored 31 points. Foye seemed to get about any shot he wanted, and his seven three-pointers were a career high. He was checked primarily by Eric Bledsoe, with Brandon Knight and Price also chipping in.
“Our guards are getting lit up, it’s as simple as that,” Hornacek said. “Until they take some pride in stopping somebody, it will continue.
“Defensively, we have to be able to stay in front of everybody. They have to guard them, as simple as that. All they did was run a high pick-and-roll, the same thing we were during, but Randy Foye just went wherever he wanted.”
The Suns trailed by 22 points in the first half before getting back in the game in the third quarter with a smaller lineup that included P.J. Tucker at the ‘5’ and three guards, including reserve Price, who was a savior on the offensive end with a career-high 20 points and a career-high six three-pointers.
Tucker, too, was a spark, playing Denver’s physical power forward Kenneth Faried to a standstill while the Suns recovered. But after expending the energy it took to grab a three-point lead, the Suns were outscored 16-6 to end the third quarter and never led again.
Tucker, who’s come off the bench the last two games after starting the first 29, had eight points and 13 rebounds, and Hornacek cited Tucker’s will. Tucker received a technical foul after a non-call when he drove the basket during the stretch when the Suns took their lead, and if looks could barbecue, official Matt Boland would’ve been cooked and ready for basting.
“You have to play the game with some emotion,” Hornacek said. “If you are playing with that emotion and a passion, you are going to get riled up every once in awhile. If you are just going out there playing the game, then it’s like, ‘Oh, who cares? I got my money. I got my contract and I’m playing the game.’ You have to dig down deeper.”
Hornacek brought up the old scouting question during player evaluations: Do you want the player who wants to win, or the player who hates to lose?
“You want the guys who hate to lose,” Hornacek said. “The guys who hate to lose have that determination, have that passion to say, ‘I’m not losing.’ Tuck is one of those guys.”
Morris didn’t address the towel-throwing incident, saying, “I’m not going to talk about that. That’s between me and coach Hornacek.”
“It’s not about me and Jeff,” Morris continued. “It’s about the team. We need to figure out how to put a string of wins together. We defended the ball bad. That’s always tough, not being able to beat a team that doesn’t have a point guard. We just have to figure it out.”
Tucker admitted there was concern in the locker room about the recent play.
“Everybody just has to go back to the basics,” he said. “Do what you do. Everybody do their job. We’ll win. I feel like we get concerned with so many things when you start losing, you start looking at so many different things. You start blaming this and blaming that. At the end of the day, everybody does their job and comes out and plays every play 100 percent, then everything else will take care of itself.
“Everybody wants to win. To do what it takes to win, that’s a whole different story.”