Heading into the fourth quarter Tuesday in Orlando, the Suns more or less accomplished what they wanted to: Dwight Howard was in foul trouble all game, the Suns scored a bunch of hoops in seven seconds or less, Shaq was a force and Nash and J-Rich weren’t bad either.
They led the No. 3 team in the Eastern Conference at the end of the quarter and held onto a lead until seven minutes remained in the fourth.
Then the pace slowed to a crawl, the Suns couldn’t buy a basket and Orlando managed a 111-99 victory in a game Phoenix had every reason to believe it could win.
From the time J-Rich nailed his fourth three of the game during his 27-point night to put the Suns up three with 7:26 to go it took Phoenix six full minutes of game time to hit a single field goal, settling for four points from the line.
In that time the Suns missed eight shots and turned the ball over four times to allow Orlando to make a decisive 17-4 run for the victory.
On the whole the Suns scored just 18 points in the fourth quarter, and they shot 40 percent with 14 turnovers in the second half after shooting 48 percent with just seven turnovers in the first half.
The pace certainly slowed, as the Suns jacked up 10 more shots before intermission than they did after the break.
“We just can’t afford to turn it over,” Gentry told Magic.com. “We’ve got to get shots at the basket. We didn’t do that, especially in the fourth we had some bad turnovers. I thought we had a pretty good rhythm the first half, never got into any kind of rhythm in the third and fourth quarters.”
The Suns had averaged 124.9 points per game in their first eight Gentry games and failed to score 100 for the first time under their new coach. A deeper look at the numbers shows the Suns have averaged an astounding 130.8 ppg in their six Gentry victories and a modest 104.3 in their three losses, with their worst victory scoring total being better than their best losing scoring game.
To Gentry, it’s no secret as to why that’s the case.
“We have to continue to push the ball, and I don’t think we did that,” he said. “Because of that we ended up playing too much in half court. In half court turnovers are going to happen. We have to come down and push the basketball and take the first available shot that’s a good shot and keep the game moving up and down, and we really didn’t do that tonight. We didn’t impose our will on them as far as the pace of the game and the tempo that we wanted to play, and really it was to their advantage.”
Now that the Suns finally have a style to impose on the other team, they must play it at all costs, especially on a night in which they did a horrendous job with entry passes to the man who was Superman before Superman in Orlando. Far too many Phoenix turnovers resulted from bad entry passes inside that were easily stolen by the Magic.
When Shaq did touch the ball he did his fair share of damage, scoring 19 points on 9-for-13 shooting to go with 11 boards, three steals and two blocks. That cancelled out Orlando’s version of Superman, Howard, who went for 21 and eight.
Before the game Shaq let the world know that he’s still the “shogun” of centers, and Howard whined that Shaq hasn’t reached out to him.
But who can blame Shaq for not wanting to help out a kid who stole his nickname while playing for the franchise that also drafted him with a No. 1 overall selection?
Shaq’s reaction to all the fuss made about Superman v. Superman: “I’m really too old to be trying to outscore 18-year-olds. It’s not really my role anymore.”
Howard of course is 23, but point taken. There’s no love lost for Shaq in Orlando, and same with Grant Hill, who was booed much of the night.
Shaq managed one of only two positive plus-minus ratings on the Suns with a plus five, joining Matt Barnes’ plus 10, whereas Hill finished on the opposite end of the spectrum with a minus 19 in his 32 minutes due to a 3-for-11 shooting night.
Just looking at the box score you would think Steve Nash played great in his return from an ankle sprain by compiling 20 points on 8-for-14 shooting to go with eight assists and seven boards.
He certainly enjoyed a great first half by putting up 15 points and five assists while seemingly swishing everything he threw up, but he seemed to tire a bit down the stretch and committed a whopping seven turnovers for the game.
Defensively the Suns made up for their turnovers in part with 17 steals to force 24 Orlando turnovers and score 28 points off those miscues, but that just makes this loss tougher to take.
This was a game the Suns should have won before going stone cold and throwing the ball around too much, the type of victory that would have started this potentially disastrous trip on a shockingly good note.
Besides drills on throwing entry passes, the thing the Suns most need to take from this game is understanding they must impose their tempo at all times.
When they push it up D’Antoni-style they look like the elite Suns squads of the past few years and can do things like beat the Lakers, but when they play a half-court game like they did in the fourth quarter they look like Terry Porter’s Suns.
And we all know where that ship was headed before the Suns canned Porter at the All-Star break.