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Hunter, Suns Learning On the Fly
By: Aaron Seidlitz, Suns.comUnwavering and unrelenting, Lindsey Hunter refuses to take a possession off.
The Suns interim head coach stands for nearly every moment of every game. He calls plays from that perch, he bickers with the referees, he encourages and he explains.
At the end of the day, what Hunter hopes to instill in his team is a sense of urgency and respect for each possession, each game and each day.
As he learns everything he needs to about this Suns team, Hunter also knows there will be games like the one he and Phoenix endured Friday night in a 117-86 loss to Minnesota at US Airways Center. The opportunity that even these games present to Hunter and his team are moments to learn and grow from.
“In this league, you play for so many years, you coach, you do different things and you see how things go,” Hunter said. “I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum, so I know what they’re going through and I understand how to come out of it.”
Hunter tinkered with his rotation against the Timberwolves, in part to try something different as the game was slipping away and also because he was limited due to injuries. The team remains without starting center Marcin Gortat, but on this night backup Jermaine O’Neal joined him on the sideline with a strained calf and a stomach virus. Swingman Jared Dudley also was unavailable for the Suns with a similar stomach issue.
Then both Luis Scola, starting at the center position for the Suns, and backup Hamed Haddadi had two fouls apiece in the first quarter.
That knocked the dependable Scola out of the lineup, although he remained the most effective Sun on this evening with 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting. Haddadi mixed it up by grabbing eight rebounds in nearly 16 minutes of play, but he was often overmatched against one of the strongest big men in the league.
Minnesota went down low to Nikola Pekovic early and often, and he exerted his dominance by scoring 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting in just over 13 minutes. The Timberwolves were also aided by the return of forward Andrei Kirilenko, who led the Timberwolves with 20 points – often slicing through the Suns defense and getting to the rim.
The first half moments in which these two began to control the game are what Hunter and the Suns are striving to avoid in the future.
That is why the team gathered at half court for a players-only huddle before the start of the third quarter, a frame in which the team showed more energy and effectiveness on the defensive end – at least to start.
“That was really just about digging down, about playing for each other and going out to play as hard we could to turn around the game in some way,” forward Wes Johnson said. “Everybody said we had each other’s back, so we just wanted to put our heads down and go out there and play.”
But even after the game had turned back into Minnesota’s favor, Hunter stopped playing around with substitutions and returned starters Goran Dragic and Luis Scola back to the court in hopes the team would continue to follow their lead.
The coach explained that he admires the trio of Dragic, Scola and forward P.J. Tucker for the constant energy and effort they provide the Suns on a daily basis.
In fact, Dragic’s ability shown through once again as he recorded 13 points and 10 assists for his league-leading 10th double-digit assist game out of 17 contests following the All-Star break. This also marked his 15th double-digit assist game this season, after collecting that many assists in 15 games over the course of his first three seasons combined.
“I will climb in a foxhole with those guys – Tuck, Scola and Goran – any day,” Hunter said. “They play the game the right way. They respect the game, they give their all when they’re out there and I can live with anything that happens when guys play that way.”
Afterward Tucker spoke barely above a whisper to explain how this loss occurred what it is that drives him to compete even when things aren’t going the Suns’ way.
The same man who dives into crowds for loose balls or refuses to back down from some of the league’s best scorers explained a premise that Hunter hopes is sinking in with all of his players.
“It’s just got to be in you – point blank, period,” Tucker said. “You can’t teach that. It’s got to be in you. It’s about pride. You have to represent yourself, first and foremost, and your team that you’ve been fighting all year for. That’s what it has to be about.”
Going forward, it’s clear that the small forward has subscribed to the head coach’s policy that excuses shouldn’t be made. For the short term or the long term, Tucker is refusing to give in.
In advance of Sunday night’s matchup with the Brooklyn Nets, Hunter would probably be happy to know just how much games like this one stick with and motivate players like Tucker.
“It sucks, there isn’t any other way to put it,” Tucker said. “I hate losing. I hate being put in the position to lose. So for me, we have to come in here and get ready for Sunday now.
“Brooklyn isn’t going to come in here thinking, ‘Oh, they don’t have any bigs, so we’re going to take it easy.’ They’re going to come in and try to knock our heads off, so we have to stand up and get ready to go fight.”