Under Pressure

by December 13, 2012

by Chris O’Leary / @olearychris

How big was the Phoenix Suns’ last-second win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night?

“We won the Championship. You guys, we won the fucking Championship,” one Sun exclaimed as he exited the showers in the Suns’ locker room, having washed off the funk of a seven-game losing streak—the worst Phoenix had endured in eight years.

He was joking when he said it, but the fact that it was OK to joke in the locker room again says a lot in itself. Goran Dragic’s scoop (no Jackson) layup with 0.5 seconds left gave Phoenix an 82-80 win over Memphis and ushered a breath of life into a team that was starting to get blue in the face.

“It was huge… mentally to get in better shape,” Dragic said, having scored 12 points and dished 8 assists. “Everybody was pretty down, especially we lost some close games. It feels great to finally win against a good team and to show that good performance.”

The Suns went into Wednesday’s game as the second-coldest team in the NBA, behind Charlotte’s now nine-game losing streak, but they’re not the only ones struggling as teams hit the quarter-point in the season. In particular, the Lakers are lost at sea and the Raptors are a steaming kettle with the lid rattling. Regardless of the talent level, or the caveat that youth often provides, losses are termites, nibbling away at the foundation of a team. And where there are termites, termination is soon to follow, whether it’s in firings, benchings or trades. Just like with the Lakers and Raptors, that heat has been on the Suns, too.

Jermaine O’Neal has seen a lot in his career, but he figured this was the longest losing streak he’d been a part of in his 16 years in the League. The Suns needed this win, he said, in so many different ways.

“Sometimes you go a long time without winning a game and confidence is shaken a little bit, you get to questioning certain things, whether you should or shouldn’t.

“It doesn’t feel good going into the next game when you’ve lost six or seven in a row, it tends to wear on you a little bit. You know, the seven that we lost in a row has been over a three-week span. We needed this in the worst way, against a really good team as well.”

The Grizzlies have been a success story to this point and are now on their first losing streak of the season. Mike Conley wants to keep losing streaks as a distant memory, tucked away with his early days in the League, when the Griz won a combined 46 games in ‘07-08 and ‘08-09.

“It’s very hard. I think the guys are playing as hard as they can and are trying to figure out what they can do to get better and then obviously you get the buzz around the League and you get the media attention for it. It’s hard to function and keep everybody together,” he said of those years.

“It was challenging to find the energy to get out and play hard and do the things you wanted to do, because it seemed like everything you did was wrong.

“[We] didn’t understand what it took to win, the atmosphere in the locker room wasn’t very fun. We were always down and depressed because we were losing.”

It’s there, wrapped in with the embarrassment of losing and the pressure of knowing that the job security of the people who drafted or signed you is dangling in the shit storm that your season is becoming, that the little things start to get to you. You’re getting singled out in practice too much; the guy in the stall next to you insists on reading all of @Horse_ebooks’ tweets out loud; the heckler behind your bench will-not-shut-up. The next thing you know, you’re blowing up in players-only meetings and calling out the guy next to you.

“Everybody’s on edge and everyone’s more intense,” Conley said. “Everyone’s under pressure and everyone wants to perform and do well and everything’s under a magnifying glass and it gets pretty heated.”

Conley trusts those days are behind him and while the Suns, just 8-15, are far from out of the woods yet, they picked up a reprieve with their win against the Grizzlies.

Sitting in the far corner of the Suns’ locker room, O’Neal pointed across the room to a whiteboard with the League’s standings on it.

“You look at the Lakers, you look at that board, I look at this every day when I come in and teams are either .500 or right under .500. If we put together a win streak, we’re right back in the mix.”

The Grizzlies left Phoenix unhappy, but they’re proof for teams like the Suns, Raptors, Hornets and Hornets-to-be, Cavs, Kings and Wizards (the Lakers are in their own continuum) that brighter days do come to the League’s down-and-outers.

“It’s very rewarding to have gone through the trials and tribulations the struggles, everything that we had to endure to get to the point where we’re at right now,” Conley said. “And we know how much work we had to do to get here. We had to work for it.”


Arizona State alum and Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins was asked on Wednesday night what he thought of Jordan Bachynski’s statistical feat over the weekend. The 7-2 center from Calgary, AB, Canada had 13 points, 12 rebounds and an ASU record 12 blocks to get the school’s first-ever triple double.

“I follow the university of Minnesota,” Hollins first said, referring to his son Austin, who plays for the Golden Gophers.

“If I had known the triple-double was so important… I’m sure I probably came close a couple of times. It doesn’t really matter,” he said. The Sun Devils retired Hollins’ jersey in 2011.

“Here a guard that can rebound, you can get a double-double on scoring and rebounding and you also have assists, Magic Johnson was supposed to do that, he was 6-9. Oscar Robertson did it and some other guys did it… a triple-double is only important if it comes in the context of the game, versus someone throwing the ball off the basket, or passing to a guy who can shoot just to get another assist.”

Hollins went onto make an argument that coaches in all sports seem to take upon themselves from time to time, that SportsCenter is ruining everything.

“We tend to get excited… we accept guys getting the alley-oop dunk as being the greatest play on SportsCenter and we overlook defensive plays. We overlook tough rebounds in traffic…keeping the other team from scoring.

“We’ve turned the game into more entertainment and more hype than… there are so many basic plays. I always tell our guys, If you’re not shooting well, there’s a lot of other stuff you could be doing in the game. And they don’t believe that, because all the hype is on you’ve got to score. If you’re a good player and you help your team win, the recognition will come.”

Lost in the hype of top-10 lists, Hollins said, is the significance of past players.

“I asked Rudy Gay (on Wednesday), Have you ever had 50 points in a game? He said he had 60 in high school. I said, You ever do it in the NBA? and he said, ‘Obviously not.’

“I said, There was a guy who averaged 50 points a game for the whole year. And [Gay] said, ‘Well, he was bigger than everyone.’ It doesn’t matter if the guy is bigger.

“I think that Shaq was bigger than everybody… there’s been a few people that are bigger than everybody that haven’t averaged 50 points per game. It’s an awesome feat, all those feats get trivialized as we move away and everybody thinks this is the greatest generation of basketball players.

“Go back and say that Wilt Chamberlain played in a League that only had eight teams, playing the same good guys every night. [Later] you had 12, 14 teams and there was a lot of guys that are in the League (now) that might not be in the League. They had shot blockers, everybody had tall guys, you didn’t just run to the rim and lay it up nobody was playing small ball, shooting threes like they shoot threes, but things have changed and it’s exciting for the fans and exciting for the TV viewers.”