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Suns 104, Heat 96 -- Stops when they count

After trailing for much of the game, the Suns were happy campers by the end. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

After trailing for much of the game, the Suns were happy campers by the end. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

The Suns know they don’t have to be a great defensive team to be a good team. What the Suns do know is that they have to be able to get critical stops when they need them most to be a good team.

After playing mediocre defense through the first three quarters, all of a sudden the Suns were the Boston Celtics in the fourth quarter, limiting the Heat to 15 points on 23 percent shooting as Phoenix took command and prevailed, 104-96, to start 4-0 for just the third time in team history.

Their zone befuddled the Heat and allowed the Suns to get those stops when they counted, and watching that I could not help but be reminded of last year’s game in Miami, a 135-129 Heat win. Whereas Miami shot 40 percent in this game, the Heat scored 68 points in the second half of that one while shooting 57.1 percent for the game as Phoenix just couldn’t buy a stop.

In that game D-Wade went off for 35 and two of his teammates combined for 55, whereas in this one Wade was “limited” to 23 and Q-Rich’s 18-point, 7-for-17 performance was the closest thing to a teammate going off.

Possibly most importantly, that loss started the Suns’ 2008-09 tailspin, as that loss was the second of an eventual six-game losing streak that doomed Phoenix’s season last March. This time the victory prevents another 0-fer road trip during another Murderers’ Row stretch and in fact could give the team the momentum it needs during this tough stretch.

The zone was certainly a surprise, but it did a great job limiting Wade, and the Suns actually did a nice job hustling back to shooters.

Jared Dudley in particular did a solid job on Wade. I really think over the course of the next few months you will hear Dudley get a lot more press for being a “stopper.” He just bothers scorers, be it preventing them from even catching the pass or getting up in their grill to mess up their rhythm.

The bench as a whole really helped turn the tide in this one. Every bench player recorded a positive plus-minus, and once again the bench bettered the starters in that department even without the injured Leandro Barbosa. That’s another welcome change from yesteryear; this bench can claw back into games instead of blowing them.

Along with Amare and J-Rich, the Suns started the fourth quarter with Dudley, Goran and Jarron Collins, who was supremely solid in drawing a charge on Wade and picking up a couple boards in just eight minutes of work. At this point the Suns trailed by six after Steve Nash carried them in the third quarter, and I was thinking Phoenix would be in a good position if this lineup could maintain that distance.

By the time Nash and Frye entered for Dragic and Collins five minutes later, the score was tied and the momentum had shifted for good.

Speaking of Nash, the guy is just playing at an MVP level through four games, and it’s fun to watch. Two Time is averaging 21.5 ppg and a league-best 12.5 apg after going for 30 and 8 in this one, and he really looks like he’s playing at an even higher level than he has the past couple years.

He took over the third quarter offensively and scored 25 points on 9-for-10 shooting in the second half, which he finished off with a couple nifty assists that 99.98 percent of NBA players could not make to seal the victory. He did all that on a true shooting percentage of 88 percent, while hitting 11-of-15 shots from the field (73.3 percent) and 4-of-5 from three to become the franchise’s all-time three-point leader after surpassing Dan Majerle’s record of 800.

“He came out in that third quarter and put on a clinic,” Grant Hill told Suns.com. ” He was kind of quiet in the first half. Steve was huge really the whole second half. It was really fun to watch.”

Added Quentin Richardson, “He’s able to get everybody involved and then he can flip a switch and turn it on. That is why he is a two-time MVP.”

The Suns also held their own on the boards, taking a 43-42 advantage, as Grant Hill pitched in with 12 and Amare 11. Lou Amundson also had a solid game with 10 and 5.

I was certainly encouraged by the camaraderie that continues to develop between the members of this team. You could see as Phoenix made its final run to pull away how excited the stars and role players alike were about the development.

“Great team win,” Dudley tweeted. “We are all hype(d) on the bus.. We had to make a come back and we did.”

The victory means that Phoenix joins Denver and Boston as the NBA’s only undefeated teams, an accomplishment that both means nothing and is pretty amazing considering this team’s external expectations.

The Suns locked down on D by throwing in a zone defense that has failed them in the past, and they kept their offense humming against a squad that has shut its opposition down in the early going.

Now the Suns face a pair of legitimate title contenders in Orlando and Boston. It’s doubtful that the Suns will be undefeated by the end of the weekend, but if they can win one of those games it would really make a statement that the Suns are not the same porous defensive club that they were last year.

Before the road trip Gentry said basically he will not think the Suns are great if they sweep the road trip and he won’t think they suck if they are swept. After this win, he said, “We’re happy with the win, but like I said, we’re not ready to crown ourselves yet.”

There are no crowns given out in November, but this is the time when teams create a perception about themselves. The Suns team I saw tonight was a scoring machine that clamped down in the fourth quarter to gut out a victory on the road. That’s not a Suns team I saw very often last season.

Tonight was a very encouraging sign, and if they at least play this way the rest of the trip regardless of results, this team should feel pretty good about itself.

I am going out of town for U of A’s Homecoming, so you will be in the able hands of Mike Schmitz and Tyler Lockman for the next couple of games. If the Suns lose any of them, just remember that this team is 4-0 in games I write about.

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