PHOENIX, AZ — If the Phoenix Suns looked a little lethargic Sunday, it was easy to understand.
Their 101-95 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks was their 22nd game in 39 days, a stretch that would test the resilience of any team, let alone one that reworked its roster in the offseason and doesn’t have the familiarity of a Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs.
It doesn’t get any better — the Suns caught a flight for Utah 90 minutes after Sunday’s game, and they have five more games before the New Year. They’ll celebrate New Year’s Eve on a flight from Oklahoma City.
Starting with a victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 12, the Suns will play 28 games in 49 days. Their 18 December games will tie a team record for the month set in 1968-69, the first season in franchise history. The league entry fee didn’t include any bargaining power.
These Suns haven’t had consecutive days off since Nov. 9-11, and they’ve had three two-time zone trips in the interim. Included was a three-game road trip and a six-gamer. While such is life in the NBA, it’s also an excessive stretch for a team that could use some serious practice sessions.
Some games have been close. Some haven’t been. Final possession losses on the road in Brooklyn and Memphis were countered by a buzzer-beating victory in Chicago. They trailed Golden State by 40 points in a 25-point loss on Wednesday before having their way with New Orleans two nights later.
At the same time, Suns players categorically deny that the schedule has anything to do with their recent inconsistent stretch, in which they’ve lost eight of 12.
Worn down is one thing.
Sloppy is in another.
Sunday’s loss was the most frustrating during the stretch. The Suns committed 21 turnovers (and a few more that officially labeled as blocked shots), allowed a 13-0 run to let Milwaukee back into the game late in the third quarter, and couldn’t hold a nine-point lead in the final 7:18.
“The importance of the ball…we just throw the ball all over the place,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek. “We have to get stronger, more aggressive with the ball. I just didn’t think all night the starters were as active as they usually are. This is a tough one for me. We just couldn’t stop them. Defensively, once you start letting guys go, you are in trouble.”
Bucks forward Khris Middleton and Michael Carter-Williams got off. Middleton tied his season high with 26 points and Carter-Williams had 20. The two made 19-of-33 from the field.
Williams, who was the Bucks’ point guard of choice when they dealt Brandon Knight to the Suns in the three-team deal last February that brought Carter-Williams from Philadelphia, tied the game at 95 on a six-foot floater with 1:13 remaining.
The Suns got only one field goal attempt on their final three meaningful possessions while the Bucks converted on their end. Eric Bledsoe had turnovers on three straight possessions, the first when he found himself caught underneath on a drive and the last when Carter-Williams took the ball away as he attempted to drive the middle with the score 97-95.
Bledsoe had four turnovers. Markieff Morris, who appeared to have worked himself back into the rotation in the 104-88 victory over New Orleans on Friday, may have worked himself back out with five turnovers in just over 15 minutes.
“I just didn’t think all night the starters were as active as they usually are,” Hornacek said.”
Players were unkind in their evaluation. Brutal, even.
“I think teams know that now, just keep it close and we’ll do something dumb to let you win it,” forward P.J. Tucker said.
“Even though we were up, they were still in the game the whole time and they didn’t panic. We let things happen to us rather than be proactive…we kind of sit back and let teams get more physical with us and not hit them first. So teams get comfortable and we get relaxed, even when we get leads. It’s still 85 percent of us killing ourselves and not teams doing it to us.”
The Suns added Jon Leuer and Tyson Chandler to their frontcourt mix in the offseason, and did the full immersion for Knight, who played only 11 games with them after the Feb. 5 trade before suffering a season-ending ankle injury.
Hornacek earlier lamented the lack of quality practice time, in which they could work some bugs out.
“We haven’t been able to have those knock-down, drag-out practices that sometimes get you going,” he said. “Typically, the teams I’ve been on in the past that have been good, you lose a couple of games, you get your butt kicked, there is usually a fight (in practice).
“That’s usually what happens when you get beat. Guys do it in practice and then they don’t like it and then they get in fights and then it is all good after that. I think you talk to every team in the league, that almost always happens.”
It will not happen in the next two weeks for the Suns, whose next two-day break includes Christmas Day, when the players are off.
“That factors into it, but we’ll never make excuses,” said Leuer, a four-year veteran. “That’s life in the NBA. The schedule you get is the schedule you get. You just have to find ways to get wins.”
The Suns haven’t found their identity, said Chandler, who believed the turnover issues that hit earlier would’ve been solved by now.
“We need to get a better flow on our game, offensively and defensively, and then continue that down the stretch,” Chandler said.
“We are erratic during the course of the game, and it mirrors down the stretch. We have to do a better job of understanding what we are trying to accomplish during the game, and that will help us down the stretch.
“We just got to get it right. We got to get a handle (on turnovers). A lot of it is not knowing where our players are going to be, not knowing what players are going to do. You have to be more consistent, so you know exactly what you are doing on every play.
“Everybody has to get on the same page, and right now we are not.”