The Suns’ fan base let out a sigh of relief that could be heard all the way from Atlanta after Phoenix held on down the stretch for once to dispatch the Hawks, 104-99, earning the team’s first road victory over a winning squad since Oct. 29 in San Antonio against the Manu Ginobili-less Spurs.
This was a big enough game that GM Steve Kerr and owner Robert Sarver took a detour to Atlanta on Saturday to tell the team that dropping five of six games, three against losing teams, isn’t acceptable for this franchise and this group of players.
“There are always three or four points of a season where you hit crisis,” Kerr told The Arizona Republic. “It’s how you respond that defines who you are. I had no doubt our guys would respond, because we have guys with great character, and they’re going to compete. It happened in Dallas six weeks ago, and we bounced back. We’ll bounce back again.
“That’s all you really want, is for guys to play hard and together and be unselfish. This is a tough league. There’s talent everywhere. A lot of times, games come down to emotion, preparation and where you are mentally.”
Kerr makes a number of interesting points in that quote.
First, he’s probably exaggerating with his use of the word “crisis,” but in the scheme of the 2008-09 NBA season, those words couldn’t be more accurate. Losing to the Bobcats by 22 to cap off a run of five losses in six games is a crisis for a team hoping to make the playoffs.
It’s a crisis comparable to six weeks ago when the Suns were embarrassed on the road in consecutive games at New Orleans and Dallas after dropping home games they should have won to Miami and New Jersey. Kerr responded to that “crisis” by sending Raja Bell and Boris Diaw out of town and bringing in Jason Richardson.
I hope this crisis is solved with greater focus and intensity from the players, and as Kerr alluded to, that the Suns find a better place mentally.
In light of the visit, Steve Nash told The Associated Press, “It sort of felt like it was a big game. I like that. It feels better when it’s a big game.”
Both teams played well enough to win in the first three and a half quarters, and how many times have we seen the Suns blow such games on the road this season?
But then out of nowhere Phoenix buckled down on defense and held Atlanta scoreless over a stretch of 5:22 to take command of the game. The only distressing part of that stretch is that the offense didn’t take full advantage, as from the 3:47 mark until there were 43 seconds remaining neither team scored.
“We just did what we had to do down the stretch,” Grant Hill told Suns.com. “We got stops defensively and we were able to hold them under 100 points, which is something you have to do against this team.”
After two Atlanta free throws cut the lead to two at that point, Nash and Amare went to their bread and butter screen and roll, Amare converted an And 1, and the Suns beat a team that entered this contest 17-4 at Phillips Arena.
Amare came out bumbling and fumbling early, turning the ball over four times without scoring a point in the first quarter, not exactly All-Star starter numbers by any measure.
He still didn’t rebound much (five), but at least he finished the game with 23 points and didn’t turn the ball over in the second half.
Shaq was his usual consistent self with 19 and 11, Nash looked much better than he did in Charlotte with 14 and 13, and Leandro Barbosa came off the bench to give the Suns a spark they so desperately needed.
LB scored 20 points on 7-for-10 shooting, including a clutch three that put the Suns up four with just under three minutes left before both teams went into their drought.
Maybe head coach Terry Porter took Matt Barnes’ suggestion to play Barbosa more to heart, as he played 30 minutes for just the second time all season in a game Nash didn’t miss. Barbosa logged the final 15 minutes of the game, while Hill (24 minutes) sat in crunch time.
However, LB was the only productive member of a bench that once again squandered a first-half lead. The Suns lost 13 points in the five minutes Jared Dudley played (no positive stats), 11 in Lou Amundson’s eight minutes (three fouls, one TO) and 12 in Barnes’ 20 minutes (five points, five boards).
Turnovers were a major issue again, as Phoenix trailed at the half despite shooting 63 percent due to 14 first-half turnovers. If the Suns averaged that many TOs for a game they would rank 13th in the NBA.
But for once when playing on the road against a good team the Suns got stops when they needed them, and as Herm Edwards would say, “We can build on this.”