The Phoenix Suns have made the most of their longest homestand of the season.With that six-game stretch about to end, the Suns look to match a season high with a third consecutive victory Sunday night against the Sacramento Kings.Phoenix (16-20) was mired in a four-game losing streak when it opened this homestand, which surrounded the All-Star break, with a 102-90 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 19. The Suns have won four of five in a stretch that concludes Sunday."We have got to take advantage of every situation as far as playing at home," coach Alvin Gentry told the Suns' official website.Jared Dudley scored 22 points and Marcin Gortat added 18 with 14 rebounds as the Suns rallied from an early 11-point deficit to beat the Clippers 81-78 on Friday despite shooting 35.0 percent. It was the Suns' lowest field-goal percentage in a win since shooting 33.3 percent during a 78-74 victory over Cleveland on Nov. 1, 2002.While the offense struggled, Phoenix held Los Angeles to 36.8 percent shooting. Channing Frye had just six points and missed all but two of his 18 shots, but he posted 14 rebounds and helped hold Clippers star Blake Griffin to season-worst 6-of-19 shooting."If we are not going to shoot the ball well then the only thing that can keep us in the game is our defense," said Gentry, whose team is 9-9 at home.The Suns have held their last five opponents to 91.4 points per game on 42.0 percent shooting, including 27.6 percent from 3-point range. That is a major improvement for a Phoenix club that had allowed visitors to US Airways Center to make 40.7 percent of their 3s before that.Sacramento (12-24) has shot 29.8 percent from beyond the arc while going 4-18 on the road in 2011-12. The Kings, however, went 6 of 13 on 3s while ending a 10-game skid at Phoenix with a 113-108 win in their most recent visit Feb. 13, 2011.The Suns snapped a three-game losing streak in the series with a 98-84 road win Feb. 11, holding Sacramento to 35.1 percent from the field.Dudley has scored 41 points over his last two games against the Kings - both on the road. He's been limited to 39 versus Sacramento in six home games for the Suns.Gortat has averaged 19.7 points and 12.2 rebounds in his last six overall, and had 20 with 12 boards in the home loss to the Kings last season.Though Sacramento has dropped two in a row and eight of 10, it cut a 20-point, fourth-quarter deficit to five before falling 115-107 to the Lakers on Friday."These guys could have folded," coach Keith Smart said. "That's why this group is going to be OK. This group is going to come around as we continue to get familiar with each other, and they're going to play hard every single night."DeMarcus Cousins had 26 points versus Phoenix last month. The second-year big man has averaged 23.7 in three career home contests against the Suns, but in his only game at Phoenix he was held to nine during a 103-89 loss Nov. 12, 2010.
Opposing teams are making a habit out of bloodying the Sacramento Kings in the first quarter. Game after game, the team wearing purple falls behind big out of the shoot and it was no different Friday night in Boston. The Celtics looked energized, taking a 13-point lead early and then held on for a 97-92 win.
A clearly frustrated coach Joerger placed the blame on his players in postgame, answering, “no, no” when asked if there is anything he can do to to get the team off to better starts. When pushed if it was on the players, he bluntly said, “yep.”
It’s become a chronic issue. The starters stumble. The second unit runs onto the court with buckets trying to bail water as quickly as possible. Whether it’s energy, effort or compatibility, something needs to change.
At the 3:13 mark of the first quarter, Avery Bradley dropped in a 26-foot 3-pointer to give the Celtics a 29-16 lead. The combination of Matt Barnes, Garrett Temple, Ty Lawson and Omri Casspi went to work alongside DeMarcus Cousins and closed out the quarter on a 13-0 run to tie the game.
“They struggled out of the gate,” Joerger said of his starters. “The second unit was good. They had a lot of energy and brought us back from a slow start.”
Making up big deficits take plenty of energy, which always seems to come back to haunt the Kings late. They keep the game close, only to run out of gas at the finish line.
“It’s almost like we got to get hit first to react,” Cousins said from his locker stall. “That’s kind of been the slogan the whole year. It’s not good for us.”
Despite not playing since Monday, the Kings starters were a step slow on their rotations and two steps slow on their closeouts. Boston moved the ball freely and found the open man on their way to 5-of-9 from three in the first 12 minutes.
“We’re in a situation where we have to come out and be the aggressive team every night,” Cousins said. “We’re not that team that can just start playing and think we can turn it on whenever.”
Unfortunately, Cousins is making a similar speech on too many nights early in the season. Clearly it’s wearing on the two-time All-Star.
“If we don’t figure this thing out, we’re going to continue to have these types of games and just another losing season,” said Cousins.
Cousins backed his coach in post game, taking the blame, along with his teammates. For the first time in four contests, he didn’t crack 30 points or more, finishing with 28 and nine rebounds.
“If we want to change things around, it’s on us,” Cousins said. “And we’ve got to hold ourselves accountable and take responsibility for our effort coming out early in games.”
To add injury to insult, the 26-year-old fielded questions with tape surrounding his right eye. Cousins took an inadvertent elbow to the head from teammate Ty Lawson at the 7:08 mark of the fourth quarter. He missed two minutes of game time, which proved to be crucial, but returned to the floor after having the wound glued shut temporarily.
Following the game, Cousins received eight stitches from the team’s medical staff.
Sacramento has a chance to get back to even on their five-game road trip Sunday afternoon when they face the 10-9 New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. The NBA schedule waits for no one. If they want to climb out of their slumber, they’ll need to find a solution to their early game struggles on the fly.
The one that got away.
There have been plenty of faces that have come and gone over the last decade of futility in Sacramento. But rarely has there been a player that has gone on to become something more than just a standard role player in the NBA.
Isaiah Thomas is the exception.
Selected with the 60th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Thomas went from zero to hero in the strike shortened 2011-12 season with Sacramento. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.
In three seasons with the Kings, the generously listed 5-foot-9 Thomas became known as “The Pizza Guy” in Sacramento due to his commercials for a local pizza restaurant and his ability to deliver in the clutch. With a million-dollar smile and the presence of a man a foot taller, Thomas became the Kings’ most marketable player.
By his third season, he was much more than just a novelty item. Despite his size limitations, Thomas posted 20.3 points and 6.3 assists per game in his final season with the Kings, forming a nice trio with DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay under head coach Michael Malone.
During the summer of 2014, the Kings, under general manager Pete D’Alessandro, decided to go in a different direction. Sacramento’s regime valued Thomas around the $5 million per season range, although they may not have even gone that high to retain the high-scoring point guard.
When the Phoenix Suns came calling with a 3-year, $21 million deal offer for Thomas, D’Alessandro dealt the fan favorite for Alex Oriakhi (a second round pick that has never played a game of NBA action) and a trade exception.
The Kings went a different direction and basically received nothing for one of their best assets.
Rumors swirled afterwards about Thomas’ departure of discourse was between he and Cousins, but neither has ever substantiated the claims. In fact, both have denied that there was a rift.
“That’s all this league is, what people think they know - 99 percent of the time, they don’t know,” Cousins said. “That’s my guy. I’m extremely happy for him. I’m happy for all of the success he’s gotten so far.”
To take it a step further, Thomas has even lobbied to have the Kings star center join him with the Celtics.
“If he came to Boston, that would be good, really good,” Thomas told the Sporting News over the summer. “The thing is, I’ve got his respect. I’ve always had that."
“When I was with him, I didn’t back down,” Thomas added in his conversation with the Sporting News. “I’m a point guard and that was my job. No matter if we did or didn’t get along off the court, on that court we were going to get along, and I was going to hold him accountable. That’s just how it is. It’s how I’ve always been. And he respects me for doing that.”
Instead of paying slightly more for Thomas in 2014, Sacramento signed Darren Collison to a 3-year, $15 million deal that summer. The Suns already had two point guards in Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe and after 46 games, they dealt Thomas to the Celtics in a 3-team deal for Marcus Thornton and a future first round pick.
Through multiple conversations with management at the time, it was clear that Sacramento’s front office didn’t value Thomas as a starting point guard and they also didn’t believe that he would willingly accept a role as a six-man.
Their valuation of Thomas was wrong.
Fresh off his first All-Star game appearance and back-to-back playoff runs with the Boston Celtics, Thomas has taken his game to even greater heights this season under coach Brad Stevens.
Thomas came into Friday night’s showdown with his former team averaging 26.1 points and 6.3 assists. He ranks ninth in the league in scoring and has the Celtics in the mix for a third straight playoff run.
Sacramento made his life difficult, but the pint-sized point guard still managed to post 20 points and seven assists in the win over the Kings.
Thomas, 27, is a free agent at the end of the year and looking to cash in off his stellar numbers. Not only does he bring an ability to hit the big shot, but he’s a leader that has proven that he can take a team to the playoffs.
The move to let Thomas slip through the Kings’ fingers goes down as one of the all-time gaffs in team history. Watching him thrive in Boston is a painful reminder to fans in Sacramento and the fact that the Kings got nothing in return makes it that much worse.