It didn’t take long for us to figure out why ESPN decided to televise Jennings v. Durant over this one.
The slumping Timberwolves were just completely overmatched by the streaking Suns, and this 120-95 blowout was only good TV for those of us who wanted to take an extended look at the Suns’ young bench.
The Suns flat out took care of business, jumping on Minnesota from the opening quarter after starting out slow during their past three road games. They ran when the opportunities were there and continued to play the efficient brand of basketball that has characterized their season.
Before the trip, head coach Alvin Gentry talked about not overlooking a bad Minnesota team and playing to the Suns’ level instead of going down to the Wolves’ level. It was nice to see that this Phoenix squad was mature enough to do exactly that.
“Just thought we got off to a real good start and I think when you’re playing a team like that, our whole goal is to not let them have an opportunity to feel like they were in the game and have a chance to win the game,” Gentry told Suns.com. “I think it was very important that we jumped on them early. We did a good job, I thought we kind of maintained the separation and never really had a bad stretch where we let them back into the game.”
Added J-Rich, who scored a team-high 22 points, “We know if we give them any kind of confidence, they have a chance to win at the end. So we have to get on them early, and we did a great job at (the) half.”
Such a game was the perfect start to this road trip, with nobody playing more than Nash’s 27 minutes and Amare only getting 18 minutes because of early foul trouble. His five-game streak of 20-point performances ended after Stoudemire only went for 12, but I think he’ll live considering the outcome, a game in which Phoenix led by a season-high 32 points on a couple different occasions.
The Suns shot 59.3 percent, assisting on 31 of their 51 baskets, and they held the Wolves to 40.7 percent shooting. The Suns also outrebounded Minnesota, 45-35, and that combination will always lead to an easy victory.
The starters once again all shot better than 50 percent from the floor and they all put up some crazy high plus-minuses, but to me this night was about the Suns’ youth after Robin Lopez made an impact in his season debut, Earl Clark came off the bench and dominated garbage time and Goran Dragic put in another solid all-around effort.
This kind of youth is another quality that the D’Antoni Suns didn’t possess. Their closest things to youth were Amare and LB, who are now practically elder statesmen on this squad.
Lopez and Dragic both disappointed as rookies and Clark has barely touched the court this year, but in this game we saw glimpses of all three players being solid contributors this year and possibly major contributors down the road.
It’s something the Suns never had through all those years of selling off picks, but after making use of the final Atlanta pick from the Joe Johnson deal to pick Lopez, trading up to draft Dragic and taking advantage of missing the playoffs to get Clark, youth is no longer a dirty word in Suns camp.
With Phoenix starting off 13-3, owing Oklahoma City this year’s pick doesn’t even look like the calamity it appeared to be a few months ago when the thinking was the Suns could take the next plunge deeper into the lottery and owe OKC a top-10 pick. That would have been disastrous, but if the pick ends up being in the mid-to-late-20s, it’s the type of selection Phoenix may have sold off anyway.
In his season debut Lopez jumped right in and scored eight points on 4-for-5 shooting to go with seven boards, two blocks and a steal in just 15 minutes of time. Sure, he made a few mistakes and picked up four fouls, but he really does bring a different presence to this basketball team, beard and all.
The blocks are great and so is his ability to finish around the basket, particularly his bucket off a Nash pass that went through Ryan Hollins’ legs to earn a No. 8 ranking on SportsCenter’s Top Plays, but what really impressed me was his board work. He was ferocious in there, even clearing a board while falling down.
Last year it was amazing how a man that tall could be such a poor rebounder. He corralled just 11.2 percent of the total rebounds available and grabbed 7.7 per 40. I know this will be a case of very small sample size, but it was nice to see him collect 26.6 percent of the available rebounds for a 18.7 boards per 40 rate.
“It was just good to get back out there and run with the guys and just play some basketball,” Lopez said on the Suns’ postgame show. “Obviously they were playing very well (without me). I just want to add in whatever I can, I want to maybe add a little bit of toughness in there. When the rebounds aren’t coming our way I want to be able to come off the bench and go get them myself if it comes to that.”
Although Lopez enjoyed a big six-point, five-board first quarter after Amare and Lou got into foul trouble, Clark didn’t see the court until the Suns led by 30 with 40 seconds left in the third quarter. Yes, he played in garbage time, but he was the MVP of garbage time nonetheless, hitting all six of his shots for 14 points.
Clark nailed an array of jumpers from different angles and showed the kind of offensive game that could be deserving of floor time, especially considering what he can do on the defensive end.
Dragic went for seven points, five boards and four assists while leading the second unit brigade to another solid performance.
Last year it seemed as if the Suns had no players outside of their top six or seven deserving of court time. This year Gentry may face quite a quandary involving playing time with LB, Dudley and Lou also deserving time along with the aforementioned trio of youngsters. It’s a quandary that I’m sure Gentry has no problem having to face, and it’s a problem that should keep the Suns fresh all season, particularly in crunch time when they have been so good all season.
All of that added up to another 120-point explosion, the Suns’ second of the season against Minnesota and second in a row overall as well as their fifth of the year already.
It also moved Phoenix 10 games above .500 only 16 games into the young season. By contrast, it took the Suns 82 inconsistent games to reach that mark last year.
With a focused crew of starters that didn’t take a bad team lightly and a young bench that enjoyed a breakout performance, I doubt this will be the only time the Suns will be 10 games over .500 this season.