The Suns would have loved to start the season with a big, back-to-back sweep of San Antonio and New Orleans but would have taken a split without much reservation had the proposal been sent their way beforehand.
Beating the Hornets any time, anywhere is a daunting task for Phoenix, which has lost five straight to New Orleans. But after a solid win over the Spurs, the Suns weren’t happy with their effort, energy or execution in a wire-to-wire loss that turned Thursday’s home opener into a distasteful reminder: There will be plenty of potholes early this season — especially when playing on consecutive nights.
The Suns had a big matchup advantage at center vs. the Hornets when Tyson Chandler was ruled out with an ankle sprain. That left lanky Hilton Armstrong to guard Shaquille O’Neal in the middle. But O’Neal had logged 30 minutes against Tim Duncan the night before in San Antonio and is going to play less — if at all — in back-to-backs. He had eight points and eight rebounds in 20 minutes, but it was apparent from the start that his spring wasn’t there.
The rest of the Suns came out listless as well, and the Hornets pounced on that to score the first nine points, stretching the lead to 14-2 before the Suns shifted out of neutral.
“It was one of those games when they had more energy. We started the game bad and they made a lot of shots,” O’Neal said. “We had trouble ringing it back up tonight.”
And that’s the problem for a team that relies on its veterans to lead the way. The Suns have 19 sets of back-to-back games this season — accounting for almost half their schedule. They have four games in five nights on their first Eastern road swing, which begins Tuesday in New Jersey and Wednesday in Indiana.
Lack of energy led to shortcuts, which led to mistakes. After committing just 10 turnovers in San Antonio, the Suns had 17 by halftime against the Hornets. The second quarter featured nine turnovers, 10 personal fouls and two technical fouls when frustration replaced fatigue. And when a team doesn’t have its fastball, playing from behind all night is doubly tough.
The Suns would appear to get a schedule break tonight. While the Suns didn’t practice Friday, the Blazers were playing the Spurs in Portland before traveling. And with Greg Oden injured — again — O’Neal gets old foil Joel Pryzbilla in the post.
That might help the Suns iron out some of their issues.
“For some reason we were very sluggish,” guard Steve Nash said. “For the second game of the year, and the home opener, that’s not good. Maybe you can chalk it up to us being a work in progress, but there was too much indecision. We don’t have a good feel for what tempo we’re going to play at.”
On one possession, the Suns would pass up an open shot. On the next, they would try to force something inside and cough up the ball. Every step forward with a run of five or six points had a corresponding backslide, usually involving one of 13 3-pointers by the patient, poised and composed Hornets.
“They hit a lot of shots. They were making leaning 3-point shots (at the end of the shot clock) and some really tough shots,” said guard Raja Bell, who overcame a scoreless, frustrating first half to score 13 after intermission. “You can say we didn’t play good defense, and I’m sure that’s part of it. But they jumped on us early.”