PHOENIX — The Suns have no problem running up a double-digit lead. Keeping that lead is a completely different story.
Phoenix jumped out to a 13-point lead early in the second quarter yet trailed by six at the half when the Heat countered with a 29-10 run over the final eight minutes of the half against a sloppy Suns team.
Phoenix still had many chances to pull this one out, sure, but it’s beyond disconcerting that the Suns are blowing big leads faster than they’re building them, which is a major reason they dropped a 109-105 decision in this one.
The Suns blew a 20-point lead in Sacramento on Tuesday and a 16-point lead on Wednesday against Houston, but they managed to pull both those contests out with clutch play down the stretch that they lacked in this one.
And really this trend goes far beyond this week, as the Suns spent the middle of December blowing leads of 19 to Orlando, 17 to Denver, 20 to San Antonio (cut to one), and 15 to Portland, winning just two of those four games despite monster leads.
“It hasn’t been the last few games, it’s been a pattern of ours, and that’s something that we can’t quite put our finger on and I don’t understand it,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “It’s a little bit disappointing because I think if we’re going to be one of those teams that talks about making the playoffs and talks about being a factor in the playoffs then that’s something that has to get taken care of.”
As Steve Nash said, there are many reasons for the Suns’ ineptitude at stepping on the opposition’s throats. This team clearly lacks a killer instinct, but it’s more than that.
I think the first reason has to do with their style. When Phoenix’s offense is clicking and its defense is hustling and everybody is gang rebounding, this team is unbeatable, particularly at home. We’ve seen stretches of that this season, and during those times you wonder why the Suns ever lose.
At other times the energy isn’t there at either end, the offense (particularly when Nash rests) becomes stagnant and turns into long jump shots, the defense lacks activity and bigger teams pound them on the boards. On those nights (think Memphis), you wonder if the Suns will even make the playoffs again.
Perhaps it’s only natural to take your foot off the gas a bit when you rack up a big lead, but for whatever reason the Suns have gone all Jekyll and Hyde through different parts of games, and rarely since November have they put together a complete game.
“I think we’ve got to have a consistent effort out there for a full 48 minutes,” Amare Stoudemire said. “Right now we play great for maybe half the game, and the effort tended to slack a little bit out there. We can’t afford that. We just have to do a better job of maintaining our intensity.
“You can’t get on your high horse, you’ve got to really stay humble and continue to play hard. Once we get the lead, it evaporates and we can’t afford that. We just have to stay humble and keep working hard for the full 48 minutes.”
Added Jason Richardson, “I don’t know what it is, but we have to figure it out, especially at home. Maybe on the road, but at home you’ve got to get those leads and bury teams. We’ve just got to be more aggressive or get a little more focused or whatever it is, but when we have leads like that we’ve got to find a way to go up five or six more and just bury teams.
“I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if we’re not focusing or what we’re not doing, but we just have to figure it out.”
The last two games have almost mirrored each other in that the Suns ran out to huge early leads (21-5 against Houston and 43-30 against the Heat) but quickly gave them up with putrid second quarters.
They both started off with some struggles from the reserves, but this time around the Suns still led by eight when Nash returned. Then the starters were “funky and out of rhythm,” as Nash put it, for the rest of the quarter.
“We get these leads and we come out and play great but then we give it all back in the second quarter,” Gentry said. “In some sort of way we have to resolve that situation so that we aren’t playing from behind at the half. I’m really disappointed in some of the things we did effort-wise.”
All that notwithstanding, the thing about a game like this is if the Suns make a clutch shot or two more than they did, this game story reads “Suns give up another big lead but prevail anyway again.”
The Suns battled back from a six-point deficit with four minutes to go and actually took the lead on a Nash three-pointer with 1:21 left.
Jermaine O’Neal countered with a jumper to put Miami up one, but J-Rich could not answer with a contested 18-footer. He had earlier missed an open three at the 2:31 mark that would have tied it after the Suns trailed by six with four minutes left.
“I definitely like those looks, wide-open threes,” Richardson said. “I normally knock those downs. They go in we win the game, they don’t you’ve got to keep playing.”
After two O’Neal freebies put Miami up three, the Suns ran a perfect play to get Nash open. Nash inbounded to Channing Frye; meanwhile Jared Dudley picked Nash’s man, getting him a relatively clean look despite Dwyane Wade running at him. The shot was just long.
“I got a really good look,” Nash said. “Wade covered a lot of ground, it was incredible, but I got a really good look, and I could not get a better look at that time in the game.”
And so it was on a night in which all five starters scored at least 15 points, a night in which the Suns outrebounded the opposition by five, a night in which Phoenix held the visitors to 41.9 percent shooting and a night that the Suns looked to be running away with when they led 43-30 in the second.
On such a night it should not come down to one or two shots in the end, but that’s exactly what transpired due to Phoenix’s putrid second quarter.
“We had stretches where we hung our heads a little bit and didn’t have good rhythm,” Nash said. “I just think we didn’t deserve it tonight.”
- Amare Stoudemire compiled the quietest 18 and 18 performance you will ever see. I was shocked when I looked up in the middle of the fourth and saw he had already pulled down 15. With the Suns losing the game and Phoenix missing out on a couple crucial rebounds down the stretch, it didn’t seem to matter.
- Grant Hill played his best game in some time with 18 points and a season-high-tying 13 boards, his first double-double since Nov. 8 after pulling the trick four times in the first seven games. He had not scored in double digits since Christmas, averaging 6.3 ppg in his last six games, and he looked at least 10 years younger in a torrid 14 and eight second half. “He plays that way every night,” Gentry said. “He may not have the numbers he has up here, but I don’t ever question his effort.”
- Wade tore the Suns up in the third, scoring his team’s first 10 points and 16 of their 22 in the quarter. For the game he went off for a game-high 32 after scoring 43 in US Airways Center last season. “He is on an elite level where you can do whatever you want to him and he’s going to score points,” Richardson said.
- The Suns held Wade in check in the fourth (one point) by going to a zone, but his teammates stepped up and made open shots. The zone stymied Miami in the first go around, but this time, “We prepared for it,” said Michael Beasley, who played Wade’s Robin with 21 points. “It kind of caught us by surprise last game, but this game we kind of knew they were going to throw it at us and we executed our game plan.”
- The Suns did not, however, on Beasley, as Gentry was peeved that his team let Beasley drive left in the first half. “He had 18 points before we decided to play him the right way,” Gentry said. After combining with Wade for 58 percent of Miami’s output in the first half, he only scored three points the rest of the way, all at the line and with one set of foul shots coming on a very questionable blocking call.
- Miami scored 23 points off 17 Phoenix turnovers. The Suns have yielded an average of 23.points off turnovers per game in their last five losses, compared to 16.7 in their last six wins. The Heat recorded 10 steals and the Suns zero, leading to many of Miami’s easy buckets.
- The Suns ran out to 18 fast-break points, the sixth time they have reached that mark in their past eight games after getting there just seven times in their first 29 games. They are averaging 20.5 fast-break points over their past eight games, which not coincidentally is when LB returned.
- The Heat won for only the fourth time in 17 games when allowing the opposition to reach the century mark.