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.