If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought the Suns were still playing for something in Monday’s 119-110 victory over the Grizzlies.
With seven minutes remaining and Phoenix hanging on to a tenuous 97-94 advantage, head coach Alvin Gentry sent Steve Nash, Jason Richardson, Grant Hill, Matt Barnes and Shaquille O’Neal to the scorer’s table in a hockey-style substitution to finish off the Grizzlies.
“It was like one of those camp substitutions – you sub a whole unit in,” Hill told Suns.com. “We came in and it was good, we did what we had to do.”
It was a bizarre sight watching an entire starting lineup including a few All-Stars checking in together in a game that has no bearing on the playoff picture.
After the young Grizzlies made a bit of a run early in the quarter, Phoenix’s vets played well enough down the stretch to ensure a Suns win by hitting nine of 13 shots down the stretch.
But to this blogger at least, a Suns win wasn’t what mattered most in this contest.
I wanted to see how Jared Dudley and Robin Lopez buckled down on defense in the final minutes of a close game and how Goran Dragic runs a team in such a situation.
These are the kinds of things the organization needs to find out now while contemplating the composition of the 2009-10 roster and more importantly the future of the organization.
These lessons obviously can’t be learned in the heat of a playoff race when every game matters, but it’s the most important thing for a team having already clinched the worst position in the lottery.
Gentry’s take, to Suns.com: “I felt like this was an important game for us to try and find a way to come away with a victory, and that’s why I put the starters back in. Not that I didn’t think our bench could do it, I just thought it was a good opportunity for those guys to close out the game, and they did a good job.”
But actions speak louder than words, and by pulling his youngsters Gentry seemed to be sending the message that he didn’t feel like they could close it out.
In all, every Suns starter scored double-digit points and played at least 30 minutes while nobody on the bench logged more than 18. For whatever reason, Gentry felt he needed to win this game after the Grizz dumped the Suns by 17 on Friday in Memphis and thus substituted accordingly.
For what I was watching for, the biggest positive in this game was the play of Robin Lopez, who without a doubt turned in his best game as a pro and even got some love from Shaq for his efforts going into a timeout.
Lopez scored a career-high 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting, making a living scoring on putbacks. Of Lopez’s five rebounds in 18 minutes, four came on the offensive end, which says two things: like Lou Amundson, his energy on the offensive boards is a huge spark for Phoenix, but grabbing just a single defensive rebound shows how far he still has to go in that department after struggling there earlier in the year.
What stood out most, though, is how comfortable Lopez looked on the basketball floor. Even in the previous game in Minnesota, Lopez would fumble the ball around and then go up and miss a couple of point blank shots. This time around he was slamming home dunks and even made a nice little spin move for a bucket early in this stint.
He looked like a competent NBA center, and frankly that’s not something you could say about Lopez much of the year.
“I think Robin is coming along, he just hasn’t had a lot of minutes,” Gentry said. “I think you will see that the more he plays the better he will get. I think he has a real bright future. He does a great job of protecting the basket. I think his offense will eventually come, and in our system he’ll do alright offensively because he can catch and finish and get out and run.”
Lopez has now played double-digit minutes in six straight after not getting double-digit burn in consecutive games all season aside from a two-game December stretch that Shaq missed.
Although he still makes mistakes and has a long way to go on offense, you can see a quality NBA center in Lopez.
“I want to stay humble and not have a big head, but I think I’ve made some huge steps since before the All-Star Game,” Lopez told Suns.com. “I’m more comfortable, I think, and I know my role, especially on offense.”
All in all it was a good night for the Suns. It’s just too bad we didn’t get to see how Lopez and Co. would handle the pressures of crunch time.