Suns 118, Lakers 103 -- Back to November

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PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns entered the season as a team with a chip on its shoulder, a disrespected squad out to prove that the reports of its demise were greatly exaggerated.

They played team ball, they rebounded by committee and they at least made an effort to play defense during the first month of the year.

Fourteen wins and three losses later, the Suns were the hunted instead of the hunter once again, and they failed to play with the kind of heart and hustle that made them the NBA’s best team in November.

Five wins and nine losses later, the Suns were the hunters against the league-leading Los Angeles Lakers on Monday night, and they turned back the clock to November to earn their biggest victory of the season, a 118-103 spanking of the mighty Lakers.

“I knew they would respond, but I didn’t know we could do it against that team at the level that we did,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “It’s a great win for us, but it only counts as one.”

This is true, but it’s still mind blowing to think that the Suns played their best game of the year on the heels of a defensive performance in Golden State that was “absolutely horrendous” in the words of Gentry, following an inconsistent stretch in which the Suns struggled on the boards, malfunctioned down the stretch and found different ways to blow leads and ultimately close games every night.

The Suns were coming apart at the seams one minute, and then all of a sudden they slap up their most consistent effort of the season, outscoring the Lakers in every quarter on their way to a 15-point victory.

Los Angeles’ vaunted defense had not yielded so many point since the Suns tagged them with another 118 spot back on March 1 of last season in Phoenix. The Suns scored more points through three in this one (89) than they had in the Dec. 6 meeting, and they surpassed their total from the Nov. 12 game by the 8:38 mark of the fourth.

“I just told the guys in the locker room, ‘You guys really screwed up now because we know what you can do, so we expect this to happen,’” Gentry said. “’We expect for you guys to be consistent in what we’re doing defensively and as far as rebounding the basketball and things like that.’ We’ve got to get back to being consistent in that, and we’ve got to get back to doing that all the time, not in spot situations.”

The Suns are now the only NBA team to beat the Lakers and Celtics (not to mention the Magic), and everybody who thought Phoenix’s hot November was a fluke that consisted largely of playing against bad teams can be forewarned that it was no fluke indeed (just a little bout with inconsistency). If the Suns can dismantle the NBA-best Lakers, Ron Artest or no Ron Artest, they can beat anybody.

When you look at this 6-9 December, the biggest difference is that the Suns have lost the kind of close games they were winning in November (4-0 in games decided by six points or less in November, 1-5 in December).

They have also been dominated on the boards, but in this one they kept the rebounding battle even (43-43) and allowed the Lakers to score just 38 points in the paint after they went off for 78 such points in the first meeting.

Amare Stoudemire pointed to the facts that the Suns had confidence and were well-rested in this one — both the other games came on the second half of a back-to-back — but it’s amazing this game could be so different than the other two were.

“Ying and yang, we were rested, we were at home, we came out with a sense of urgency,” said Channing Frye, who went for 14 points and a season-high 11 boards. “I think we were on attack like we were the first 15-16 games. That’s how we have to play. We have to play on attack. For us to win consistently we have to be aggressive.”

Added Kobe Bryant, “It was just execution. We just beat the (expletive) out of them the first two times and they returned the favor. It’s about execution and they executed extremely well and we didn’t defensively, and that was the difference.”

The benches also made a sizable difference. Gentry said the Suns’ bench played its best game of the season, as Jared Dudley tied his career high once again with another 19 points. The ever-confident Goran Dragic went for 14, LB 11 and Robin Lopez a surprising eight and five for a bench that combined for 52 points. Los Angeles’ bench could only muster 31.

After Kobe almost single-handedly cut a 19-point lead down to 12 at the end of the third, the Suns’ bench with Frye lengthened the lead back to 19 midway through the final period.

“The second unit came out there and really gave us a spark off the bench, a lot of energy, great plays defensively, rebounding the ball, just creating havoc out there,” Amare said. “That’s what we look forward to those guys when they come in, that energy, that extra spark off the bench, and tonight they did a phenomenal job.”

Added Dudley, “We have to somehow throughout the season relieve pressure from Steve and Amare.”

I would be tempted to call this a “statement win” or a “season-changing win” even if Nash says the Suns will forget it about it by next week and Gentry keeps proclaiming that this one only counts for one game in the standings, not five or six.

If you don’t believe them, you only need to look at last year when a statement win over the Lakers without Steve Nash turned out to be a monumental tease when the Suns proceeded to lose their next six games to drop out of the playoff picture.

It’s too early for them to drop of the playoff picture and I doubt they’ll drop six straight, but what they should take out of this win more than anything is the confidence that they can play with the best.

However, they should take from this month as a whole the fact that if they don’t play with that edge then they’re a shade worse than mediocre thanks to their size deficiencies.

“We definitely had a little bit of slippage, so to get back to that training camp mentality that we had at the start of the season (is big),” Nash said. “We can’t take things for granted. If you look at our first month and second month the difference is really close games. We won a lot of close games, and we were really hungry for it. We lost a little of that hunger.

“We can’t get carried away. We just need to keep building. Most people picked us not to make the playoffs, so we’ve just got to keep trying to improve and not think that we’ve arrived just because we started off the season 14-3. We’ve got to just continue to build, be humble and hungry, think of ourselves as underdogs and not have the weight of the world on our shoulders and not think we’ve arrived.”

Last year’s win over the Lakers was telling in that it was a mirage. The Suns mustered up their best effort of the season but ultimately could not sustain it.

Thus far we’ve seen two versions of the Suns: the elite team from tonight and November and the mediocre squad from the rest of December that’s barely deserving of a playoff spot.

The true Suns probably belong somewhere in the middle, but after a victory as fulfilling as this one, it will be difficult to handle the Suns’ inevitable inconsistency.

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