The Suns followed an all-too-familiar pattern during their six-game losing streak: battle tough against a good team, fade late and then launch a furious offensive comeback that’s thwarted by an inability to get a stop late in the game.
In Monday’s 118-115 win over the Nuggets, the Suns battled tough against a good team in the first half, faded early in the third quarter and then furiously fought back to win for a change with a clutch fourth quarter started by a bench unit and finished off by getting a couple of stops.
When head coach Alvin Gentry was talking about the Suns being four stops away from being a really good team while Phoenix was losing game after game, he was talking about games like this one.
After Shaq tied the contest with a pair of free throws with 1:28 left,drew an offensive foul playing aggressive defense on Kenyon Martin, setting up ’s open go-ahead shot at the other end.
Thenbeat Chauncey Billups to the spot when the Nuggets guard was going left to draw another charge and then forced Billups to take a tough runner that missed next time down. With only six seconds left and no miracle threes up Denver’s sleeve, that was the ballgame.
“I told Steve we must live in a parallel universe because he came up with two big stops for us at the end of the game on Chauncey with the charge and then he guarded him where he made him take a tough shot,” Gentry told Suns.com. “You look at the sheet and we gave up 115 points, but I thought we played great defense down the stretch and did a real good job.”
This game personifies exactly the kind of defense the Suns need to play.
Phoenix shoots better than 50 percent and scores at least in the 110-120 range every night, so if the team can just get a couple crucial stops down the stretch like the Suns did tonight, they’re going to be a really good basketball team.
What I take most from this game is that the Suns finally won a close game against a good team in the Gentry Era.
Before tonight, Gentry’s 10 wins as interim head coach have come by an average of 19.9 points per game, with the only victory in single digits being that upset of the conference-leading Lakers, a seven-point win.
As for the losses, aside from blowout defeats at the hands of the Celtics and Lakers, Gentry’s other six losses from the six-game losing streak all came in winnable games in which Phoenix’s defense faltered down the stretch, as the Suns averaged a 6.7 ppg margin of defeat, with four of the losses by six points or fewer.
This is the Gentry Suns’ first victory in which they had to execute down the stretch, hit a couple clutch shots on the offensive end and actually come up with a few stops on the defensive end.
With two games against Utah and one against Portland on the docket this week, teams that are within striking distance just ahead of Dallas, this won’t be the last nip and tuck game the Suns play in the next few days.
During the six-game losing streak, one loss seemed to morph into the next one, as the Suns lost game after game due to a lack of defensive execution down the stretch.
Now actually having done it will be huge if and when the Suns play another such game later this week.
The other biggest reason the Suns won besides another monster game from Hill (23 points, 10 boards, five assists) was a Suns bench that even missing its fireplug in Leandro Barbosa more than kept Phoenix in the game while the starters rested.
I’ve been critical of Gentry resting all of his starters at once in the past and still don’t like it, but you can’t argue with the results in this one.
At one point in the fourth, the Suns went to their bench lineup of, Alando Tucker, Jared Dudley, Lou Amundson and fifth starter Matt Barnes, while Hill, Nash, Shaq and J-Rich watched.
The unit scored five quick points to take a three-point lead before handing the game back to the starters with the deficit at a very reachable three-point margin.
Dudley stayed in the rest of the way instead of Barnes and played the game’s final quarter and a half, finishing with 11 points, eight boards and an amazing hustle rebound with two minutes left that led to a Denver foul and two Dudley free throws to tie the game.
It may come as a surprise that Dudley was a team-high plus 12 and Lou was second at a plus nine, but that’s how good the bench was late and in the first half as the Suns built up a 14-point lead.
Even Dragic played well, hitting a pair of big threes and two late free throws. With LB down, Dragic essentially played when Nash sat (13 minutes), and unlike earlier in the year he’s not a liability anymore.
“Our bench saved us again,” Gentry said. “When we made that run, we had all of our bench players in there. I continue to say that, but night in and night out our bench has been pretty good for us.”
This was no minor victory coming against a division-leading Denver squad that saw its five-game winning streak snapped in US Airways Center.
Now the Suns are the team with the five-game winning streak, which has immediately followed that ugly six-game losing streak, and they’ve picked the right time for their first run of more than three consecutive victories.
Since the end of the losing streak, the Suns have cut a seemingly safe six-game Dallas lead in half with a game yet to play in Big D and two fewer games against playoff teams down the stretch.
If the Suns go 3-2 in their five games against playoff teams as well as win in Dallas, they won’t be the long shots they were a week and a half ago.
“We are playing for our playoff life right now,” J-Rich told Suns.com. “Every win is big for us and every game is big for us.”
If the Suns can beat division leaders by getting stops down the stretch and clutch play from an unheralded bench missing LB on a consistent basis, the regular season will yet have a happy ending.