PHOENIX – Two weeks ago, the Suns lost their sixth straight excruciatingly winnable game, time after time failing to come up with that crucial stop or clutch basket to stop the bleeding.
Two weeks later the Suns are the hottest team in the West after winning six in a row by coming up with that crucial stop or clutch basket when the team needs to close out a victory.
“Sometimes you forget, you don’t know how to win,” said Suns forward Grant Hill. “You forget how to win those close games, and we’re learning. We need to do it down the stretch against playoff-quality teams.”
In the final minute of Wednesday’s 118-114 victory over the Jazz, the Suns got a clutch basket by Hill and then a clutch stop at the other game to win a game that could have easily gone either way after the teams played to a dead heat after 47 minutes.
Two weeks ago, the Suns would have lost tonight and probably Monday night as well. Instead Phoenix followed up Monday’s fourth quarter in which the team yielded 35.0 percent shooting to the Nuggets by holding the Jazz to just 36.0 shooting from the field.
A team that seemingly couldn’t get a single stop down the stretch during the fourth quarter now is putting up Boston Celtics defensive numbers in crunch time.
“We made the plays down the stretch, and we just didn’t make those plays on that road trip,” head coach Alvin Gentry said of that disastrous 0-4 trip. “We had opportunities, just didn’t quite get it in the basket or we didn’t quite come up with the stops, and it happens sometimes, but we’ve really dug in, especially the last two games when we’ve been able to come up with the big stops and then make the big baskets.”
Gentry called this victory “a total team effort” with seven players reaching double figures and three scoring over 20, and for the second straight game Hill led the way.
The veteran hit 10 of 16 shots for a game-high 26 points, including the game winner, and always came up with a basket when the Suns needed one. He also filled the lanes on the break and looked more like a 25-year-old than a 36-year-old to Gentry.
“I’m just amazed by him,” Gentry said. “He still has so much of his athleticism left, dunking the ball and getting out on breaks, and then we went to him at the end of the game and he made a big shot for us. I’m happy for him because he’s played in every single game we’ve had this year, which I think is really important to him.”
It was also very important for the Suns to get a great second half out of Matt Barnes after the swingman scored 15 points on 5-for-24 shooting the last three games and then hit one of five shots for three points in an ugly first half tonight.
He then started the second half with a driving dunk on Carlos Boozer and soon scored three layups off assists from Steve Nash, who passed Maurice Cheeks for ninth on the all-time assists list on a later feed to Barnes.
All in all the forward scored 12 points in the third and 18 in the second half overall on 7-for-9 shooting while also grabbing nine boards, dishing five assists and blocking a pair of shots for the game.
That’s just the kind of player Barnes is. He will jack up stupid threes and even hit the side of the backboard once in a while like he did Wednesday night, looking nothing like the type of player you’d want playing heavy minutes in a playoff push.
Then all of a sudden he gets hot and he’s the perfect four for the Gentry Suns.
“I think Matt and I have a real special relationship,” Gentry said. “I know sometimes he’s going poorly, but I just really believe in him. I think somewhere along the line he’ll make a play for you or do something, and I know sometimes he drives everyone crazy, but he really is a big-time competitor, and I think it’s important for players to know you have confidence in them, and the only way they can know if you have confidence in them is that you have to leave them in sometimes when they’re struggling.”
Responded Barnes, “It means the world to me. I’ve been struggling a lot lately, (but) in that second half I came out and kind of sparked our team, and everyone else followed.”
Gentry hasn’t just done a great job with Barnes. I barely recognized Goran Dragic out there tonight, as the rookie can no longer be described as “tragic.”
Dragic once again nailed a pair of huge fourth quarter threes and scored 11 points for the game to go with a pair of boards and assists in 13 minutes. He wouldn’t have even shot those threes a couple months ago, as the rookie now doesn’t even resemble the player he was to start the year.
You can also tell the Suns really love playing together, from the reaction on the bench when Lou Amundson comes up with a huge swat to their commitment to running and being there for each other on the break and even – gulp! – on the defensive end.
Ever since the six-game losing streak was snapped, the Suns have played with a different energy and a different intensity, truly playing with the win or go home attitude that they’ve talked about after losing “must win” after “must win.”
Whether they burn out or not is anyone’s guess, but Hill has noticed that the Suns are finally playing with the togetherness that we used to see from this franchise during the D’Antoni years.
“We’ve really come together as a team,” Hill said. “We’ve really just, for the first time this year this kind of reminds me of what was special about the Suns when I first came here and just how everybody was together, everybody was bonding, everybody was doing a lot of things together on and off the court, and at times it wasn’t there this year, but it’s there now. I think it carries over, the feeling in the locker room, it carries over into the court.”
From Sunday’s charity gala in which Dragic and fellow rookie Robin Lopez stole the show with their, um, interesting singing voices to a looseness on the court, the Suns are doing what the Suns have always done: having fun while winning.
They beat a Utah team that had been the hottest in the NBA since the All-Star break, winning 14 of 17 coming in, by running for 31 fast-break points and scoring 68 points in the paint. Utah’s 21-year head coach Jerry Sloan said he can’t remember the last time one of his teams yielded so many points in the lane.
Beating the Jazz in Phoenix isn’t much of an accomplishment since Utah fell to 0-9 on the road against West playoff contenders, but that stat could certainly be good news for the Suns, who now trail the Jazz by four games with Utah still facing six more road games at West contenders.
Phoenix also trails Dallas by three after the Mavs beat Golden State tonight and Portland by four heading into Thursday night’s showdown against the Blazers.
But with the Suns finding a way to win tight games down the stretch after faltering time after time in such situations during their six-game losing streak, the Suns are starting to remind Barnes and Jason Richardson of a certain former team of theirs.
“J-Rich and I were just talking in the shower, this feels like Golden State,” Barnes said of the 2006-07 Warriors that charged into the playoffs before upsetting top-seeded Dallas. “We’re getting hot at the right time, every game means something, and we’re really coming together as a team right now.”
It only took them the better part of a season, but the Suns are finally the Suns again.