“It is the story of our season. We let another game slip away.”
Shaq uttered those words two nights ago in Miami, but he may as well have made a recording to use after Friday night’s 116-112 defeat, the toughest loss to swallow to this point.
The Suns’ defense has so struggled to get stops the past two contests it almost feels like they’re in an end game situation the entire second half, just instead of fouling to stop the clock and hoping to trade three for two they’re just trying to trade those baskets straight up, never able to get over the hump.
In the final three minutes in Houston, Phoenix cut the Rockets’ lead to one on three separate occasions and even tied it once after trailing the entire second half. Before that the second half looked like a mirror image of the other night in Miami, when the Suns trailed by between three and seven much of the half but never broke through.
After tying a quarter low under interim head coach Alvin Gentry with just 18 points in the first, the Suns pushed the pace up to their usual lightning standards, particularly in the second half when they scored 66 points after putting up 20 fewer points in the first.
But Houston stayed just as hot to make that torrid half for naught.
“We got the pace of the game where we wanted it – up-tempo,” Gentry told Suns.com. “Houston likes to play that way, too. We seem to be snake bitten with the way things have gone at the end of games lately. Steve got a great look at a three, but it didn’t go. I thought we came up with stops at the end to get it tied. They made tough shots, and I thought we played great defense.”
Whether Gentry thinks the Suns played “great defense” or not, the bottom line is the Suns just couldn’t get enough stops when they needed to most in order to steal a game they nearly won anyway on the offensive end.
Trailing by four with just over a minute left, the Suns ran a beautifully-designed play in which LB inbounded the ball to Matt Barnes. Meanwhile, Shaq set a back screen on Barbosa’s defender, and LB gave Aaron Brooks a pump fake on his way to a wide-open three that he swished.
Following another Brooks floater to take the lead to three, Shaq set a pick on Brooks to free Nash. Yao failed to come out on him as much as he should have and Nash just barely drilled the game-tying three after it took a soft bounce off the top of the rim.
At this point it felt like the Suns had scaled Everest. Phoenix had led for a grand total of 22 seconds in this one since 2-1, yet the club seemed poised to steal a game that players were calling a “must-win” before the contest.
After matching buckets with Houston for much of the quarter, now was the time they needed just that one stop to assure them of one final possession for either the win or overtime.
Yao set a high screen for Brooks to seal off Nash, so that left Shaq one-on-one with the speedy Oregon alum, and you knew this wasn’t going to end well.
It didn’t when the jet-quick guard turned the corner on the Shaqtus and just managed to sneak a little scoop shot by the big man. What a shock that a team with a speedy point guard would take advantage of the Nash-Shaq pick-and-roll defense.
With 7.3 seconds left on the clock and one chance to tie or win the game, the Suns ran nearly an identical play to the one that led to Nash’s tying shot, just on the other side of the floor.
This time Yao challenged the attempt a bit more, and thus this shot was straight but just short and received no fortuitous roll into the basket like the former attempt did.
Nash would have been able to beat Yao to the basket, but Ron Artest would have been ready with the help. Plus, after all the energy the Suns used up in their comeback while playing on the road, going for the win sounded like the right call to me, especially the way Nash was en fuego the entire second half.
“I had a good look at it,” Nash told Suns.com. “It was straight on and didn’t know if I would get a better look had I kept going to the basket. I just had a go at it.”
Nash had to have played the strangest game of his career. He couldn’t buy a bucket during a three-point, 1-for-10 first half, but many of those misses were shots he normally makes.
I’d say he even took some tougher shots in the second half, when he scored 29 points on 13-for-17 shooting to bring the Suns all the way back, while still managing 13 assists and five boards for the game.
Nash said he struggled with his recently-sprained ankle in the first half, which prevented him from getting lift on his jumper before he made little adjustments with his shot in the second half.
For the game Nash scored a season-high 32 points, and his 29 in the second half betters every output of the season besides Wednesday’s in Miami. Nash is certainly being more assertive with Amare done for the year as evidenced by the 27 shots he put up, the most attempts of his career.
Nash more than took advantage of having a smaller defender in Brooks on him, but (surprise, surprise) Nash struggled just as badly staying in front of the fleet Houston youngster.
Brooks scored a career-high 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting, frequently turning the corner on Nash to find creases in the Phoenix defense. I wonder how much longer until the Suns set a career high in giving up career highs to opposing players after yielding three in the last two games alone.
No bucket mattered more for Brooks and the Rockers than his winner with seven seconds left that pushed this road trip one step closer to being a full-fledged disaster for the Suns, who continue to creep further and further away from the playoff picture now three games behind Dallas.
Early on it was the Luis Scola Show on the boards, as he grabbed five early rebounds (three offensive) in the first seven minutes going up against the shorter Barnes, but the Suns ended up actually winning the rebounding battle by one, 44-43.
In his Suns debut, Stromile Swift helped that cause by bringing down four defensive boards in his 11 minutes, and while he didn’t do much offensively, his rebounding prowess will be a major asset down the road as it was tonight.
With Swift in the mix, Jared Dudley sat the pine for the entirety, and with the heavy minutes played by the top six, somebody will be the odd man out on a regular basis. Against the bigger Rockets, it made sense for that player to be Dudley, and I expect his minutes to continue to take a hit the rest of the year.
Grant Hill also saw his minutes drop, going scoreless in 25 on 0-for-3 shooting. Gentry played Barnes and LB with Shaq, Nash and J-Rich down the stretch, with Hill relegated to cheerleader status.
Hill still managed to grab six boards, but any time you see a stat line like this you’ve got to wonder how much his foot is bothering him.