PHILADELPHIA - When it comes to the Suns, the months of January and February couldn’t have been more different — except for the way they ended, with a road loss against a team they normally dismember with their up-tempo style and decided advantage in talent.
In January, the Suns went 15-1, appeared invincible and ran on all cylinders before finally falling in Minnesota, foiling a perfect month. But Wednesday, an 8-5 February punctuated by injuries and indecision came to a merciful climax as they fell 99-94 to the plucky but pitiful 20-38 Philadelphia 76ers at the half-empty Wachovia Center.
The Suns whiffed on their chance to go a perfect 15-0 against the Eastern Conference on the road this season. But that was the least of their current problems — lagging way behind: (1) those out with or coming back from injuries; (2) the continued struggles of Raja Bell, and now Kurt Thomas; and (3) the mounting minutes for those remaining few who are healthy and shooting straight.
Playing without Shawn Marion (hand contusion) for the first time and without Boris Diaw for what seems like forever (all but seven minutes in the last eight games), the seven players Suns coach Mike D’Antoni chose to play never led — the first time that’s happened all season — and were burned by the likes of Willie Green (16 first-quarter points), Kyle Korver and the rest of what is left here in the post-Allen Iverson era.
“Someone out there wasn’t going to let us win all 15 in the East,” said Steve Nash, who rolled his left ankle twice (leaving him limping through 40 minutes) but still produced 20 points and nine assists. “They played well and we played a subpar game. I don’t know what it is.”
If that sounds familiar, much the same happened Tuesday in Indiana before the Suns woke up in the third quarter and ran the Pacers into submission. Amaré Stoudemire held up his end with another monster game (31 points, 14 rebounds), but without Marion collecting easy baskets and punctuating Phoenix’s transition game (only 10 second-chance points, nine fast-break points), it was up to the rest of his weary teammates to fill the gaps.
Oops. The Suns missed 12 of their first 14 shots — falling behind 10-0 — and eight straight in the third quarter, right after they labored to cut a 14-point Sixers lead to one thanks to five straight points from Nash.
Everyone else? Not much. Bell missed 11-of-16 shots, Leandro Barbosa missed 12 of 16. Kurt Thomas had four points — all in the final minute — and is 6-for-23 from the field since returning from injury. The only two bench players D’Antoni called on at the end of a four-game trip, James Jones and Marcus Banks, combined for 12 points in 38 minutes.
“We dug ourselves another hole and maybe the energy was sapped from (Indiana), but we just didn’t pull it off, “D’Antoni said. “(Tuesday) night we did it, tonight we didn’t do it.”
But since they were playing the Sixers, who had 20 turnovers and shot 36 percent in the final three quarters, Phoenix nearly won anyway. Barbosa tied the game at 84 with one 3-pointer and got the Suns within 88-87 with another with 2:17 left. But Andre Iguodala (24 points, seven rebounds) answered with a 25-foot dagger 18 seconds later.
“There were a couple of suspect calls down the stretch,” Stoudemire said. “Even with the way we played, we could and should have won. We let it slip away.”
Marion thought he dislocated his right pinkie finger Tuesday in Indiana, until his whole hand swelled up on the flight to Philadelphia. X-rays before the game revealed no fractures, but Marion missed only his 11th game since the 2000-01 season.
“The X-ray here showed nothing, but we’ll take more in Phoenix (today) and see,” said Marion, with his hand tightly wrapped. “Hopefully, it won’t be too long. I don’t like missing games. My (left thigh) was hurting pretty bad also, so if it wasn’t one thing, the other probably would have kept me out.”
Marion’s injury leaves Stoudemire — who missed all but three games last season due to microfracture surgery — as the only Sun to have played in all 58 games.
Meanwhile, Diaw sat out for the seventh time in the last eight games after his back held up for only seven minutes in Indiana. D’Antoni said Diaw now won’t play until he’s confident the problem is behind him.
How bad are things for Bell? During one third-quarter possession, he air-balled a 3-point shot from one corner — and after running to the other corner while Thomas it ran down — stepped out of bounds as he was loading up another shot. …
Philadelphia made all 18 free throws, shot 71 percent from 3-point range (5-for-7), collected 50 rebounds and still failed to reach 100 points. …
Barbosa had been averaging 20 points and shooting 46 percent from 3-point range in his 12 starts before Wednesday.