Jazz 104, Suns 99 OT – A demoralizing blow

After Hill's crushing mistake at the end of regulation, Williams and the Jazz demoralized the Suns in overtime. (AP/George Frey)

After Hill's crushing turnover in regulation, Williams and the Jazz demoralized the Suns in overtime. (AP/George Frey)

After Thursday’s loss in Portland, Matt Barnes told The Arizona Republic that the atmosphere in the Suns’ silent locker room made it feel “like someone died.”

Use your imagination to determine what the dressing room felt like after Phoenix’s most crushing loss yet, a 104-99 overtime loss in Utah that they lost, won and then lost again.

In a game that in some ways mirrors their season, the Suns dug themselves a huge hole, furiously fought back but ultimately fell just short.

Only time will tell if that scenario will repeat itself in mid-April.

This demoralizing blow featured a season’s worth of missed opportunities. To start, the Suns missed at least eight layups, an inexcusable number for a good high school team, not to mention your Phoenix Suns.

The NBA’s only team to make more than half its field-goal attempts suffered through a rare poor shooting game, hitting just 37.1 percent of its shots. Steve Nash went 7-for-21 while missing a number of open shots, Jason Richardson knocked down just 2-of-11 and Barnes 5-of-16.

“It’s just one of those nights they just weren’t going in,” Steve Nash told Suns.com. “It happens sometimes. It’s one of those nights you got to fight and find a way to stick around and we did that, but we just didn’t make the plays down the stretch when we really needed them.”

All those bricks added up to a 58-37 deficit a couple minutes into the second half, but all of a sudden the Suns realized their season was on the line and played with a fire and passion that has been missing much of the season and all of the first half.

What followed was 19 minutes of furious basketball that saw Phoenix outscore the hosts by a shocking 51-23 margin.

This wasn’t against a Clippers team that makes a habit of embarrassing collapses but a Utah Jazz team that hasn’t lost in this building since Jan. 27, their only home loss to a Western Conference opponent all season.

A 51-23 run after the Suns threw up a three-days-old stinking heap of garbage 11-point second quarter was as shocking as anything that’s happened in this shocking year.

Driving home after watching the first half, I couldn’t even stomach the thought of listening on the radio. The Suns looked worse than they have all season and were playing with none of the spirit that such a desperate situation should command.

Then suddenly things started to click, sparked by their reserve lineup and Jared Dudley in particular.

After scoring three points in the first three quarters, Dudley came alive with a 12-point outburst in the fourth, and all of a sudden the Suns led by seven and controlled this basketball game.

A Suns win would have pulled them to within 3 1/2 games of Utah with the tiebreaker and 2 1/2 of Dallas with the chance to win the tiebreaker next weekend.

Less tangibly but even more important, this would have been the kind of stupid, ridiculous, no way to explain it victory that any team trying to go on the kind of magical run the Suns are absolutely needs. You need to get lucky once in a while and steal one.

Not only would this have been huge for the Suns’ psyche, but it would have been just as damaging for the psyche of the Jazz, who would feel the heavy panting of Shaq and the Suns breathing down their necks.

Now the Jazz can resume their chase for playoff positioning without worrying about Phoenix, and the Suns can continue to focus their sole attention on the Dallas Mavericks.

This game was all but won when the Suns inbounded the ball with 25 seconds left up by two. Take care of the ball, make your free throws and get on the plane to Sacramento with a miracle win.

Then Hill inbounded it to Barnes who threw it back to Hill, who didn’t seem to be ready for the pass. Hill never caught it cleanly before fumbling it out of bounds, a play the veteran probably makes more than 999 times out of 1,000.

This is the kind of break you get to become a team that’s 68-10 at home the last two years, like the Jazz are.

Then with the score tied at 90 in the final seconds, Nash drove off a pick from Shaq and the defense collapsed to leave Barnes wide open for a corner pocket triple that he of course missed.

Barnes was struggling through one of his patented slumps having hit 10 of 45 long balls (22.2 percent) heading into that shot. Credit Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan for playing off the coldest player on the floor and figuring the unselfish Suns would find him.

My first thought was, ‘Why the hell wasn’t J-Rich on the floor instead?” Suns head coach Alvin Gentry has been going with the hot hand lately, meaning Dudley played during crunch time over J-Rich.

But even as cold as J-Rich was in this game, I would have rather him take that shot.

After the Suns jumped out to a quick four-point lead in the extra session, the Jazz scored 11 of the next 13 points, including a dagger of a four-point play hit by Andrei Kirilenko.

Nash then nailed one of his crazy fading Steve Nash threes and the Suns had a chance to tie or take the lead in the closing seconds. Nash found Shaq who dished it over to an open Hill, who missed a 10-footer as Kirilenko ran out on him.

And with that, down went the Suns.

“You know, we just couldn’t do it,” Nash said. “It’s disappointing.”

The biggest positives to take out of this contest was the play of the bench, especially the young Suns.

For my money, that was the best Robin Lopez played in a big situation. Call it the chewing out he got from Shaq the other night or just maturing as a player, but Lopez got a few clutch rebounds in traffic that he never would have corralled a few months ago.

As the Suns clawed their way back early in the fourth quarter, the entire bench stood cheering, completely into the game. You don’t often see an entire NBA bench standing early in the fourth quarter, but that shows what this game meant to the Suns.

It wasn’t just a playoff atmosphere as the Suns made their run after a first half that sorely lacked that energy, it felt like a Game 5 with Phoenix trailing 3-1, badly needing a victory to get back into the series (or in this case, their season).

At this point nothing worse than an 8-1 finish will likely do, maybe even 9-0 depending on how Dallas fares the rest of the way.

But in a season of games that have slipped through the Suns’ hands like that ball did through Grant Hill’s in the final seconds of regulation, you’ve got to wonder whether the Suns have taken their final blow.

  • JonZ

    I have been enjoying this blog’s take on the Suns and their season, the analysis has been better than expected…. but I have to ask how you could write an 1,100+ word post about this most terrible of losses and only give a cursory mention of Matt Barnes’ catastrophic impact on the result?
    You briefly mention his recent, and routine, 3-point shooting slump, but completely neglect to talk about Barnes PERSONALLY missing 3 point blank, uncontested layups in the first half. Other players missed some gimmies as well, but Barnes himself left 6 points out there on shots that were unguarded layups.
    Then, to place the blame of the botched inbound play on Grant Hill, “who didn’t seem to be ready for the pass … (and) never caught it cleanly before fumbling it out of bounds” is absolutely ridiculous. The shot clock was even with the game clock and the Suns were ahead by 2 points, Hill SUCCESSFULLY inbounded the ball to, guess who, Matt Barnes. Now, any high scholl basketplayer would know that all he has to do now is hold the ball tight and wait to be fouled. Then, make shots and game over. Instead, Barnes panics, just like he did when he missed 3 straight uncontested layups, and tries to pass the ball back to Hill, who wasn’t even completely back in bounds. For me, Matt Barnes singlehandedly cost the Suns a game that they had to win, a game in which the other members of the team overcame a collective bad performance and fought back, overcoming a 21 point lead with an amazing run led by the bench squad. Any other player on the team, even the much maligned Robin Lopez, would have known to simply hold the ball and wait for the foul. Barnes did not, and that is inexcusable.
    As for why you failed to mention any of this, I am just curious. Like the blog overall, wondering if you agree or disagree with this asessment? Thanks.

  • http://www.valleyofthesuns.com Michael Schwartz

    No question Barnes was a major reason for the defeat, but you can place a good deal of blame on every one of the starters and a few of the reserves, too, for missing open shots and making dumb mistakes. Yes, Barnes missed three layups, but by Eddie Johnson’s count, the Suns as a team missed eight. EIGHT!! That’s a staggering number. Barnes wasn’t the only Sun missing point blank shots, so that’s why I chose to point that stat out as a team instead of chiding Barnes personally. Barnes also scored 10 points in that first quarter and hit a couple of treys to keep them in a game that they tried to give away in the second quarter.

    As for the last play, remember that game in OKC earlier this year where the Suns ran off like 10 secs to end the game without the Thunder fouling? Barnes said he wanted to pass to chew the clock, and that’s honestly the right play, especially when he’s not exactly Steve Nash at the line. Hill shoots 80 percent and Barnes 75, and with the way he was slumping with his shot, I’m not so sure I’d want him at the line in that situation. You can also place blame on Hill for not being ready for the pass back, so essentially I can understand Barnes’ thought process in passing it back, and like I wrote, 999 times out of a 1,000 we aren’t talking about that today.
    I also didn’t get into how much they missed LB (you think they score in 11 in the second if LB is there with his instant offense boost?), and you can pick out any of the numerous mistakes the Suns made as the killer. So yes, Barnes made some of the biggest mistakes, definitely agree with you there, but he certainly wasn’t alone.

  • http://morgamic.com/ Mike

    Michael – you learn in most camps (and most high school or college teams) that you don’t pass backwards against a press. So barnes should have tried to advance the ball forward first, not just look backwards and defer to Hill. That was just bad fundamentals at work there.

  • http://morgamic.com/ Mike

    I should also mention that an experienced player would not release towards the corner of the court, where a trap is most effective and instead release to the middle.

  • Pingback: Seven seconds or mess: A season in chaos| Valley of the Suns

  • Pingback: Preview: Suns (26-19) at Jazz (25-18)| Valley of the Suns

  • Pingback: Preview: Jazz (38-22) at Suns (39-24)| Valley of the Suns

  • Pingback: Phoenix Suns 100, Utah Jazz 86 -- Feeling three| Valley of the Suns