Although the Phoenix Suns re-energized their season last Thursday with a home win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team which came into town with the Western Conference's best record, Jeff Hornacek's club has dropped three of its last four games, all against playoff-contending opponents.
The Suns have fallen to 36-27 after back-to-back road losses to the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday and Monday.
Since a convincing 106-85 win over the San Antonio Spurs -- who now lead the West -- on Feb. 21, the Suns have stumbled to a 3-6 mark over their last nine games. Based off current standings as of Tuesday morning, Phoenix would not be in the playoffs. The energy that the team opened up the season with hasn't been as pervasive lately, and some of the players appear to be getting winded more quickly.
While on the Doug & Wolf show Tuesday on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, Hornacek relayed what his message is for the team right now.
"Don't make things easy for them," he said. "We're telling our guys all the time, 'Don't let them get comfortable.' And I think teams in these last six or seven games against us have really felt comfortable, and we've got to start mixing it up a little bit."
After Sunday's loss at Golden State, Hornacek was saying that toughness has been an issue for his team. He elaborated more on the subject Tuesday.
"Some of our guys are just, you know, they're not the big, tough guys," he said. "(We've) got a lot of nice guys on the team that need to get out of their comfort zone. And it's only on the court. They can still be nice guys off the court, but on the court, they've got to get a little more nasty, get a little more dirty -- not in terms of making dirty plays, but get their hands dirty."
The first-year Suns coach said that toughness doesn't just apply to defensive end, where the team hasn't held an opponent under 100 points since the San Antonio win, but that's it includes hard screens on offense, driving to the hoop and fighting for loose balls. He also said toughness can be a psychological trait, not a just a physical one.
"If you're going to play soft, basically you're playing into the other team's hands. The guy's going to take it right at you, and typically you're going to get called for the foul," he said.
The coach refused to name names of whom he was specifically talking about, but he seemed to indicate that P.J. Tucker and Goran Dragic were exempt of his assessment. Hornacek also refrained from agreeing that his team collectively is tough.
"We have guys that play tough in stretches, but not all the time," he said. "I think when we talk about toughness, I think (the lack of) toughness is pretty much the whole team. Everybody's got to step it up a notch in that department."
Phoenix looks to get a boost by the potential return of point guard Eric Bledsoe against Cleveland on Wednesday. Hornacek said that he'll work the fourth-year guard into the lineup carefully and that it might shake up the team's rotations to some degree.
The Suns coach added that the 6-foot-1 guard's return should take some of the playmaking pressure off Dragic, but he said he told his players that they can't take afford to ease up just because Bledsoe -- who was averaging 18 points a game before his right knee injury -- will soon be back in the lineup.
"We told the guys tonight after the (Clippers) game, I said, 'Just because Eric's coming back doesn't mean you guys can all take this big sigh of relief and relax a little bit.' We've got to continue to play almost as if Eric wasn't there, and then get him in there and that's just another weapon for us."