Suns 114, Rockets 109 – Crunch time lockdown

Shaq and the Suns soared over Yao and the Rockets to keep their playoff hopes alive. (AP/Paul Connors)

Shaq and the Suns soared over Yao and the Rockets to keep their playoff hopes alive. (AP/Paul Connors)

Cross another day off the schedule as the Mavericks maintained their four-game lead by beating Miami while the Suns took a 114-109 decision against Houston, and then take some time to lament how Phoenix wouldn’t be in this situation if it played the same fourth quarter defense all year that it did tonight.

Trailing 96-89 a couple minutes into the fourth after blowing an 11-point halftime lead, the Suns were less than a quarter away from officially being able to lose all hope in this season.

If they went down five with seven to go, not even Alvin Gentry on his most optimistic day could spin that scenario as grounds for a possible comeback.

So the Suns buckled down on defense and held the Rockets scoreless for about five and a half minutes of game time while reeling off a 15-0 run to put themselves in the driver’s seat.

ESPN’s announcers joked that this was the best defense this franchise has ever played, and frankly that wasn’t too far from the truth (at least from the defense I’ve been old enough to watch).

Shaq blocked Yao a couple times and made his adversary passive, while Jared Dudley did his best Ron Artest impression on Ron Artest. The Suns were active, deflecting balls and forcing steals that led to baskets on the other end.

It was an impressive showing of intestinal fortitude when Phoenix needed it most, and you can only wonder where that was this weekend in Utah and Sacramento not to mention countless other times earlier this season.

“It was a must-win game for us,” Shaq told Suns.com. “Our guys played well – good team ball and made stops when we really needed to make stops. Seven more (wins) – that’s what needs to be done.”

Steve Nash once again showed he’s not ready to go home in mid-April by coming up with arguably his best offensive game of the season with 25 points and 17 assists to just one turnover while recording a plus 18 in his 39 minutes of play.

Whenever the Suns needed a big shot Nash knocked it down on a night in which he missed just six shots, and he was at his Nashian best finding teammates and making plays.

You can say it wouldn’t have mattered without the defensive boost down the stretch, as Nash was also brilliant offensively Sunday night in Sacramento to no avail, but the two-time MVP willed his team to victory in this one.

“I thought that was about as aggressive as I have seen Steve offensively and we really needed that, and I think he understood that,” Gentry told Suns.com.

Phoenix’s starters – even Matt Barnes with 6-for-7 shooting – played great offensively, as the top five scored between 16 and 25 points, but the Suns got just 10 points from the bench, seven of which were courtesy of the emerging Jared Dudley.

Lou Amundson was also great with eight boards and two blocks adding up to a plus 19 in just 16 minutes, but not even a return to Phoenix could bring back the scoring punch to a bench that is missing Leandro Barbosa more by the day.

Friday against Sacramento has been the latest tentative return date for LB, but as we know if he’s not feeling good Friday morning, he’s not playing in that one.

Gentry celebrated the Suns being 1-0 in the so-called new season, but if they really want to go undefeated, they’re going to need a healthy LB.

All in all, this was another tease game for the schizophrenic Suns.

I don’t get how they can lose to a team that’s 41 games under .500 one night and look bad doing so, and then go out and grind out a win over a playoff team like Houston that entered winning 17 of 22.

When this Suns team has a couple days off and plays with the kind of focus that’s been lacking much of the year, it’s hard to imagine they’ve been on the outside looking in on the playoff race the entire second half of the season.

I’ve been holding off on the sour grapes “If only the Suns played in the East” rant for a few days now, but after watching the Phoenix beat up a contender like Houston it seems like a perfect time to point out the Suns would be in fifth place and easily in reach of fourth in the Leastern Conference.

The eighth-place Chicago Bulls boast a sterling 36-40 record, a good 5 1/2 games worse than the Suns and 9 1/2 games behind than the Dallas Mavericks’ mark that Phoenix is chasing.

Chew on this for a second, the 32-44 Milwaukee Bucks are the same four games out of a playoff spot that the Suns are and the lowly 31-44 New Jersey Nets are a mere half game behind that.

The Suns have played very poorly at times this year, but this is still a potent basketball team with a star-studded lineup capable of doing big things.

If you put the Suns in the East, they would have clinched a playoff spot with tonight’s win and would go into the playoffs as the most feared team outside of the top three.

But alas, Phoenix resides in a rough and tumble Western Conference that has them any combination of four Mavericks wins and Suns losses from elimination.

“We let a lot of games slip away this year, but there are seven games left and we’ve got to win them all out, that’s the bottom line,” Shaq said.

Sadly, unless the Mavs stumble, that may not even be enough.

Tags: Leandro Barbosa

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