Hawks' defensive struggles early prove costly

Jeff Teague led the Hawks with 29 points late Sunday against Phoenix, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Atlanta from losing for the 11th time in its last 12 games. (Reuters)

Jeff Teague led the Hawks with 29 points late Sunday against Phoenix, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Atlanta from losing for the 11th time in its last 12 games. (Reuters)

PHOENIX — Defense? What defense?

Coach Mike Budenholzer has not been pleased with the Hawks’ defense during their recent losing streak. And they didn’t play much in the first half — especially in transition — against the Suns Sunday night. It cost them.

The result was a Suns’ 129-120 victory over the Hawks at US Airways Center. The Hawks (26-32, 9-21 road) have lost three straight and 11 out of 12 overall entering Wednesday’s game against Portland, the second of a five-game West Coast road trip for Atlanta.

The Suns scored 79 first-half points and made 12 of 18 from 3-point range in building a 16-point advantage from which the Hawks could never fully recover.

“(Sunday) our transition defense just wasn’t good enough,” Budenholzer said. “If your transition defense is not at a high level every night, especially (Sunday), you are going to struggle to have a good defensive outing. We dug ourselves a big hole in the first half and a lot of it was because of our transition defense. … We’ve been talking about transition defense from the start of camp and tonight hammered home how important it is.”

Jeff Teague led the Hawks with 29 points, including 17 in the first half. He tied a career-high with 14 field goals and is averaging 27.2 points in the past four games. The 109 points is the highest four-game total of his career.

Mike Scott (20 points) Kyle Korver (18), Lou Williams (15), Elton Brand (13), Shelvin Mack (11) and DeMarre Carroll (10) all scored in double-digits for the Hawks. Korver, who hit six 3-pointers, extended his NBA-record streak to 127 games with a long-range basket. Williams has scored in double figures in seven straight games. Mike Muscala made his NBA debut and had four points and five rebounds. He became the first player from Bucknell to appear in a regular-season game when he entered in the second quarter. With two blocked shots, Brand tied Elvin Hayes for 21st in NBA history (1,771).

The Suns (35-24, 21-11 home) have won two straight. Gerald Green led the Suns with 33 points and Goren Gragic added 19 points.

“He was excellent,” Budenholzer said of Green. “He was the X factor. A lot of the guys did what they’ve been doing all year. Gerald Green had a fabulous night. He hit some tough shots and he hit some open shots. He got going. He felt confident. We felt like we did a decent job on (Goran) Dragic but Gerald Green got away from us.”

The Hawks rallied from a 16-point deficit in the third quarter. They went on a 29-16 run to and trailed by just a point, 95-94. The Suns ended the quarter on a 7-1 run to take a seven-point edge into the final period.

“I thought we just ran out of gas,” Carroll said. “A couple of loose balls we didn’t get. Just one of those nights. We have to learn from it. We want to be the team we were in the second half and not the team we were in the first half.”

The Suns raced — literally — to a 79-65 halftime lead. They scored 40 first-quarter points, the most allowed by the Hawks in any quarter this season. The halftime point total was the most allowed in any half this season, nine more than the 70 the Heat scored in the first half Jan. 20. The Hawks allowed the Suns just 50 second-half points.

“That was it all the way,” Korver said of the Hawks lack of transition defense. “It’s what we talked about all morning at shoot-around. They are the number one team in the NBA in fast-break points. Traditionally, in an NBA game you are used to going back to the basket and fanning out. That is always the emphasis. But they all stopped at the 3-point line. Their point guards are good at getting in (the paint) and we just got sucked in too much. And they got hot. They are a good shooting team and they had a good shooting night. I thought the second half we did some good things, made some adjustments and fought back. But when you are on the road, on this trip, we have to play 48-minute games.”