MINNEAPOLIS - The Suns have earned fair-sized pockets of rooters in almost every NBA city. But nobody loves to see Phoenix in town more than fans in the Twin Cities.
It’s the equivalent of an oasis in the desert — or in this case, tundra — for the home team.
The Timberwolves have seven wins all season. They have five at home. But put the Suns in the Target Center, and general manager Kevin McHale’s ragtag team looks like his old Celtics dynasty reborn thanks to their oh-so-polite visitors.
The Suns were embarrassed here for a second time in 46 days, watching an early 10-point lead freeze over like Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes in a 117-107 loss Wednesday that wasn’t nearly that close.
Al Jefferson, who might be in the MVP running if the Suns popped up on the schedule more often, had a career-high 39 points — besting the career-high-tying 32 he had here on Dec. 8 in a 100-93 victory over Phoenix that the Suns blamed on the end of a long road trip and playing four games in five nights.
This time, the schedule maker was innocent, while the rest of the Suns couldn’t escape blame.
They were outrebounded by an unsightly 48-26. They gave up 22 offensive rebounds — something even shooting 56 percent from the field couldn’t overcome. Minnesota had 22 second-chance points and three or four cracks on many possessions while Phoenix stood and watched.
That’s two losses to Minnesota and one each to fellow basement dwellers Miami and the Los Angeles Clippers — not the kind of stuff you normally find in a championship season highlight video. And the Suns gave their detractors all kinds of fresh ammo to work with in this one.
The loss dropped Phoenix percentage points behind the new Western Conference leader, the New Orleans Hornets. And while it might be too early for scoreboard watching, it is getting late for problems like effort and pride to still be cropping up.
“They played well, but it’s us,” said Phoenix coach Mike D’Antoni, who spent most of the night digging a hole in the floorboards with his shoe in disgust. “We didn’t have enough fight in us. We’re a small dog out there and when you don’t have fight, you get the hell beat out of you.
”If you lay on the ropes, they’re going to beat you. They’re bigger than we are, fine. But if you run and double (team) and do the things you’re supposed to do … we should have won, but we didn’t. Small and slow is not a good combo.”
Amaré Stoudemire had 33 points , hitting 14 of his 16 shots from the field. Six of them came in the first eight minutes, when the Suns took a 16-6 lead and appeared intent on making sure disaster didn’t strike here again.
At that point, Minnesota called a timeout. Phoenix disappeared into their huddle — and was never seen again.
“What turned it was 'Zzzzz,’” said D’Antoni, acting as if he nodded off to sleep. “We do that. I could have written the article for you. We just have a habit of turning it off. They turned it on and we let them out of the box. We gave them hope.”
By the end of the quarter, the Suns were down 32-23 after a 26-11 Minnesota run. By the middle of the second quarter, the deficit was 20 — and never got smaller than 10 when it mattered.
Shawn Marion took only three shots (he made them all) and had three rebounds. He made a 3-pointer with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter and didn’t shoot again until a dunk with six minutes left . Leandro Barbosa again struggled with his shooting, ballhandling and defense. Boris Diaw’s 23 minutes were invisible.
“We didn’t fight hard, so we take another step back tonight,” said Steve Nash, who had 21 points and 16 assists. “I’m not worried about where we finish or if this game bites us in the standings. I’m worried about building good habits, so this game bites me in the (expletive) because we didn’t build the characteristics for when it’s going to count.
“Not enough pride. Not enough consistency.”