After a buzzer-beating loss in Atlanta earlier this season, the Suns decided not to get mad, but rather get even.
With all the trade talk and drama behind them and their focus entirely on basketball, the Suns were able to exact some revenge on the Hawks for the heartbreaking January loss in Atlanta that saw Jamal Crawford sink a three-pointer with under three seconds to play.
On their own court this time around, the Suns dropped the Hawks 88-80 behind the efforts of the man probably happiest to be done with the trade deadline commotion. Amare Stoudemire scored 22 points to go with eight rebounds before resting on the bench most of the fourth quarter.
“They got us out in Atlanta on a game-winning shot,” Stoudemire said. “That was a shot that pretty much stayed on our taste buds for a while.”
The Suns put the Hawks away early in the fourth quarter. Less than a minute into the third, a 4-0 Hawks run had the game tied at 70. But the Suns countered with a 13-0 run to make it 83-70 with just under six minutes in the game. The Hawks made it a six-point game, but couldn’t catch up to the Suns, who avoided what would’ve been the Hawks’ first season sweep of the Suns since the 1991-92 season.
In a rare defensive battle, the Suns won when being held under 90 points for the first time since February 2008. The win was the Suns’ first of the season when held under 100 points.
“We did a really, really good job of just playing solid defensively,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said after the win. “That team is a really, really good team. All you need to know is that they swept the Celtics this year and they’ve beaten just about everybody in the league.”
Gentry was rightfully proud of the win that saw the Suns do a lot of things right, such as forcing 15 turnovers and holding Atlanta to 30 second-half points. The Suns held the Hawks to 16 points in the third quarter, the lowest they have of any opponent in the third this season.
“I don’t know if 88 points is our style,” Suns forward Jared Dudley joked. “But that’s how we have to play defensively.”
While the Hawks put on a defensive show of their own, they also deserve a little credit for the Suns’ win as well.
“Our offense hurt us tonight,” Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. “We missed a lot of good shots and a lot of our shots were hurried shots.”
The Hawks finished with a 39.5 percent shooting percentage, but that number doesn’t do justice to the Hawks’ first quarter. In the first, the Hawks went 10-for-27 for 37.0 percent. That’s not terrible shooting, but considering their seven offensive rebounds and only six second-chance points, it was a rough start for the Hawks.
Gentry’s only gripe about the Suns’ play was their 17 turnovers for 15 points. Gentry has stressed turnover management as key to the Suns recent success and said it has to improve in every game.
Grant Hill looked good for the Suns, adding 16 points and five rebounds, as did the Suns’ second unit. Hill the Suns’ reserves in that crucial third quarter.
“Our second group had a lot of energy between me, Jared (Dudley) and Goran (Dragic) and we just have to build on this,” Channing Frye said. “Some games aren’t going to look pretty, but a ‘W’ is a ‘W.'”
Frye was right about this uncharacteristically low-scoring game not being pretty, but it was especially rough on Suns point guard Steve Nash.
Gentry commented before the game that he thought Nash was “mentally worn out” from the whirlwind of activity that saw him carry the Olympic torch in Vancouver then hop on a plane to Dallas for All-Star Weekend. Nash said after the game it was more his body that was bothering him.
“I’m not doing so well physically,” Nash said, noting that his abdomen and lower back were still aching. “But it’s difficult to miss games right now with the [Western Conference] so tight.”
Gentry said he hoped Nash would take Saturday off and recuperate a bit, and Nash said he likely would.
Nash finished with just six points, making it his third consecutive game in single digits. Nash did hand out six assists, but he spent less time on the floor than any other starter. Since the All-Star break, Nash has averaged just 6.3 points per game, but 11.3 assists.
With the way Stoudemire is playing right now — this was his ninth straight game of 20 or more points — Nash getting healthy could mean big things for this team. They are playing their best basketball of the season and are now tied for a season-high 12 games over .500. They have won seven of their last nine games — a stark change from going 2-7 in the nine games before that.
The big difference for the Suns has (obviously) been defense. The presence of Lopez (who finished with 12 points and nine rebounds) in the post has been a game-changer for the Suns, essentially motivating the rest of the team to step up their defensive game.
The Suns’ defense may have been excellent — seriously, try to remember the last time the Suns held a team to 80 points (it was actually that same game that they won their last sub-90 points game, back on Feb. 22, 2008, vs. Boston) — but the Hawks did have their impressive performances.
The ever-underrated Joe Johnson netted 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds, and Josh Smith scored 21 points.
It’d take a serious betting man to say that the Suns will keep this defense up for the rest of the season, but if they can at least play in the same defensive realm, they may go further than anyone expected.
With this seemingly newfound potential and optimism, it’s even more important that the Suns hung on to Stoudemire at the trade deadline.
“To have him back definitively is a relief,” Nash said. “It’s also good for the team because we know what we have going forward.”