Suns 112, Warriors 103 -- Dragic takes over

PHOENIX — In years past, Leandro Barbosa would often start the fourth quarter and explode on the offensive end to spark a Suns victory.

With Barbosa out for the next month after he undergoes surgery to remove a cyst on his shooting wrist on Tuesday, Goran Dragic played the role of fourth-quarter sparkplug tonight by scoring 18 of his career-high 20 points in the quarter.

Oh yeah, and he also ran the Suns for eight minutes, played ball-hawking defense and made the play of the night by running down C.J. Watson and blocking a breakaway layup attempt with the Suns up three with just over three minutes left to ensure a 112-103 victory.

“Goran was great tonight,” said Suns guard Steve Nash. “He made some big shots, he had that look in the eye, he was really aggressive, and it was fun to see him step up and make some big shots and key plays.”

Dragic missed a three on the ensuing possession that would have brought the house down, but after Channing Frye hit a follow attempt the Warriors never got closer than four. Goran later added a three ball to really ice it by putting Phoenix up 10 with 23 seconds left.

“Goran made an unbelievable defensive play, kind of sparked the whole thing, got us over the hump,” said Suns coach Alvin Gentry. “He made some great plays and good shots, and he’s aggressive with the ball. I love the effort that he plays with, and to me the biggest positive is that I see him get better every game that we play, and that’s a tremendous key that he continues to work hard and improve.”

If Barbosa would have gotten hurt last season and thus force Dragic into the lead guard off the bench role, you could have expected him to be Trent Dilfer on that 2000 Ravens team that won a Super Bowl behind a ferocious defense. In other words, you could have expected him to manage the game but not win it himself.

Now Dragic is capable of winning games like he did tonight by going off for 18 points in the fourth quarter alone, a total he had reached only once in an entire game his whole career. These weren’t garbage points either. The Suns trailed entering the quarter and led by a single point with five minutes left.

Dragic needed just six shots to reach that total, sinking four of them, three of which were long balls; he also knocked down seven free throws in eight attempts in the deciding period. In all he scored just five points less than the Warriors and 13 more points than the next closest Sun in the deciding quarter.

“Tonight I felt great,” Dragic said. “I wasn’t rushing. … When Leandro is out I have to step up and just play hard.

“My confidence is huge right now. I know I have to step (up), I have to help my teammates.”

To go back to the football analogy, earlier this season Gentry commented on how Nash is Peyton Manning, controlling the game and being willing to check off anything; at that time Dragic was Dilfer, willing to throw the five-yard out but not the deep post.

Dragic certainly isn’t at that Peyton Manning level yet, but maybe he’s approaching Eli as he becomes more situated within the Suns’ hierarchy. In Slovenia, his teams relied on him to be that gunslinger, whereas in Phoenix he looks around the room and sees guys by the names of Nash, Amare and J-Rich. He’s now really starting to become that player the Suns saw in Slovenia that made them feel like they were nabbing the best point guard in the draft not named Rose.

In Dragic, Nash has a teammate who can help him create offense for the rest of the Suns. (AP Photo/Paul Connors)

In Dragic, Nash has a teammate who can help him create offense for the rest of the Suns. (AP Photo/Paul Connors)

Also, when the Suns throw Nash and Dragic out on the floor together, Nash said it helps the entire team because now there are two players who can create offense, two guys who can play the pick and roll.

Tonight that left Nash spotting up for threes in the corner when he entered in the fourth, something he rarely if ever has been able to do as a Sun because he’s always the guy creating shots for others.

“He’s showing a little bit more here and there, but I think we’ve seen some of it in practice and we’ve seen some of it throughout the season, so I think that’s why we all believe he’s going to be a really good player,” Nash said of Dragic, who added four steals. “He’s got the ability, but if you don’t have the confidence it doesn’t matter, so when he comes out there and he has the belief then he can put his skills to work.”

Dragic was the key cog, but he was joined by a bench crew of Dudley-Frye-Clark-Lou for the majority of a fourth quarter in which the Warriors were limited to 40.9 percent shooting. Nash and Amare did not check in until 3:36 remained, and Gentry contemplated letting the aforementioned crew finish the game themselves they were playing so well, a proposition the assistants recommended.

Dragic wasn’t the only Phoenix sophomore to shine, as Robin Lopez recorded 16 points and a team-high nine boards. while hitting all eight of his foul shots. The Suns have now won the rebounding battle in all four games he has started, and although he has yet to pull down double-digit boards in any of them, you have to think his presence is a big reason for that.

Once again the Suns did not shoot particularly well (43.5 percent against a Golden State squad that entered the day surrendering league-worst 48.5 percent shooting) nor did they play that well considering the Warriors played a pair of D-Leagues for over 37 minutes. They are clearly in a funk, as this is a game they would have won by 25 in November.

But at the end of the day, the Suns won a game they couldn’t lose, and these days that’s enough to make it a good night on Planet Orange.

“It was a big win,” Nash said. “It would have been a devastating loss. It wasn’t pretty, but we had just enough toughness and depth tonight to pull through when we weren’t really playing our best.”

And 1

  • A night after scoring just eight points, his second-lowest output of the season, Nash scored a team-high 23. Still, he wasn’t at his best physically and missed a number of three-pointers (3-for-10 overall) that he normally would drain. “I had a little more juice, [but] my body’s not quite right. I didn’t feel good actually, but I felt a touch better than last night.”
  • When Gentry first brought back the Suns’ two All-Star starters in the fourth, Frye and Lou remained on the floor with Dragic, which gave the Suns a lineup of two point guards and three bigs. Lou Amundson may have even been the small forward in that lineup, and it looked less than natural when he made a small forward cut and got the ball around the charity stripe.
  • Steve Kerr said before the game he thought his Wildcats were probably a year away from being able to win a rivalry game in Tempe. I have a feeling Kerr will be OK with being wrong about this one being that the Wildcats spanked the Sun Devils, 77-58.
  • As I interviewed Dragic in the hallway outside the Suns’ locker room, some Suns cheerleaders passed and joyously exclaimed his name. At the conclusion of the interview I remarked that the best part of his big performance is that the cheerleaders now certainly know who he is. Replied the ever-faithful Dragic, “But I have a girlfriend. I don’t need trouble.”
  • The Dragic-led bench scored 33 second-half points after recording just two in the first half. … The Suns overcame a double-digit deficit for the sixth time this season and won their second straight home game on the second half of a back-to-back, improving to 3-7 on back-to-backs overall. … Phoenix improved to 4-4 at home when trailing after three. Last year they were 4-30 overall in such situations. They also won their only other home second game of a back-to-back when trailing after three on Jan. 6 against Houston. … Jason Richardson started in place of Barbosa, but with Dragic hot he was the only rotation player not to get time in the fourth. He was also the only starter not to score at least 15 points, contributing just eight, but he did chip in with eight rebounds. … Dragic wasn’t the only fourth-quarter star. Lou Amundson grabbed eight of his nine boards in the period. … The Suns have now own 10 homes game in a row against Golden State. In fact their last win on TNT was a home win over the Warriors back in 2008.

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