PHOENIX — For years the words “defense,” “rebounding” and “Phoenix Suns” couldn’t possibly be used in the same sentence with accuracy unless words like “bad,” “terrible” or “awful” were also thrown into the mix. But while a 104-88 win over the 18-win Sacramento Kings doesn’t exactly change that, the Suns are quickly proving that they have the ability to execute the intangibles down the stretch that so often separate good teams from great teams, especially in the playoffs.
Those intangibles were on display tonight, as the Suns dominated the rebounding battle 49-36 and held their opponent under the century mark for the second consecutive game for the first time since Nov. 27-29. Phoenix is 12-0 this season when holding opponents under 100 points.
“I thought we did a really good job, especially in the second half, of controlling dribble penetration,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “I thought we did a great job on the boards, especially on the offensive boards. I thought our defense was the difference.”
“I think as a unit we are all playing extremely well,” added Amare Stoudemire, who finished the game with 19 points and 14 rebounds (six offensive). “We are doing what we need to do to win. … We did a phenomenal job again tonight. Defensively seems to be the name of the game so far over the past couple of weeks. We’ve just got to keep the momentum going.”
In the last five games the Suns have yielded an average of 40.6 points in the second half — including an average of only 32 points during the last two games — which is clearly a tribute to that all-important defense and rebounding. But in tonight’s game against the Kings, it wasn’t smooth sailing for a full 48 minutes.
Phoenix lacked energy to start the game, and the Kings took advantage, tallying 10 fast-break points on their way to a 27-25 lead after a first quarter that saw two ties and nine lead changes.
In the first half, the Suns were unable to match the defensive effort that helped them win seven of their previous nine games, as they allowed the Kings to stretch their lead to as much as 10 behind 56.1 percent field-goal shooting. Although Sacramento was 1-of-6 from distance in the half, there was basically no interior defense on the Suns’ part, until they went to a zone defense late in the second quarter.
Out of the zone, Robin Lopez saved a ball from going out of bounds, which led to a fast break that resulted in a ferocious reverse dunk from Jason Richardson. At that point, momentum shifted. J-Rich caught fire in the second quarter, scoring 14 of his 19 first-half points, including the final seven Suns points of the half. But even with Richardson’s explosion at the end of the half, the Suns still trailed 54-51.
Behind some stingy team defense and gritty board work by Amare and Robin Lopez — who combined for 12 points and 12 rebounds in the third quarter — Phoenix opened the second half on a 15-7 run and led by as many as nine points in the third.
“Alvin came in and reminded us how big a game this would be to lose and that we had to pick it up defensively,” said Steve Nash, who played 35 minutes and recorded 11 points and 17 assists after being tabbed a “game-time decision” due to back and abdominal ailments. “We couldn’t give up easy buckets anymore. So we turned it up in the second half.”
That defensive effort, which came just two nights after allowing only 16 third-quarter points in a win over the Hawks, resulted in a 15-point third quarter for the Kings — the least amount of points given up by the Suns in the third quarter all season.
Phoenix hauled in a ridiculous nine offensive rebounds in the period and ultimately led by as many as 18 en route to its eighth victory in 10 games.
Richardson, who finished with a game-high 26 points, was huge for the Suns as he sparked the late second-quarter comeback that gave the Suns some momentum heading into the locker room. The Suns are now 16-2 when J-Rich scores 20 or more, and he certainly had it working tonight.
“I just got into a rhythm,” Richardson said. “I saw we were struggling a little bit and we needed some energy so I just took it upon myself to go out there and be aggressive. The shots started falling and it kept us right in the game.”
“When he gets 20 we feel pretty good about it,” Gentry added. “We like to try to get him the ball and get him in situations where he’s scoring because usually when he plays well offensively we’re in pretty good shape.”
While J-Rich was terrific, the name of the game, once again, was defense. Shot-clock violations, off-balance shots, and turnovers aren’t usually things that the Suns force their opponents into, but tonight, and the better part of February for that matter, things were different.
Stoudemire did a nice job on the newest King, Carl Landry, limiting him to 18 points on 6-of-15 shooting. Landry was averaging 24.7 points and 8.7 rebounds in three games against the Suns prior to tonight’s matchup, but the Suns’ bigs stifled the gritty forward.
Thanks to Nash, Richardson and Grant Hill, rookie of the year frontrunner Tyreke Evans was almost non-existent, as the Suns limited him to 16 points, while forcing him into five turnovers.
“We probably did the best job that we’ve ever done as far as his dribble penetration and stuff like that,” Gentry said of limiting Evans. “He had a couple of baskets at the end of the game, but that’s about as good as you’re going to play him.”
Although it came against the Sacramento Kings, the Suns did all of the little things that win ball games, especially come playoff time. While I can guarantee Planet Orange is not ready to dub the Suns a defensive ball club, the Suns are quickly becoming good enough on the glass and defensively to win when the offense isn’t exactly up to par.
“We haven’t shot the ball well for about four or five games now,” Gentry said. “Tonight we shoot 46 percent and still find a way to win. It’s a good thing for us because I think we are getting better defensively.”
The Suns now sit a half-game behind the Oklahoma City Thunder, who they play in OKC on Tuesday night, for fifth place in the Western Conference. Every game from here on out is significant, but with the Suns playing the way that they are right now, the team is all smiles.
Jokes and laughs filled the locker room after the win, and Jared Dudley even broke out JMZ to lighten the mood. The Suns are rolling, but with their trademark inconsistency always capable of popping up, coupled with the competitive Western Conference playoff picture, there is no reason to smile just yet.
“The second half we just realized how important these Western Conference games are,” Stoudemire said. “Everybody is on everybody else’s heels. One game can determine whether you have home-court advantage or not. With that said, we know how important these games are and we attack it as such.”
- Steve Nash’s 17-assist effort was his 10th game with at least 16 assists this season. Nash only reached the 16-or-more plateau five times last season. To show how truly amazing that stat is, all other NBA players have combined for only 11 games with 16 or more assists. Pretty good for a guy who wasn’t close to 100 percent. Although the win was nice, Canada lost to USA 5-3 in the Winter Olympics, prompting Nash to give two thumbs down when the final score was announced.
- Stoudemire continues to go off. He is now averaging 23.9 points and 11.6 rebounds in the month of February (eight games). Amare certainly was all smiles in the locker room after, plugging himself on Twitter to JMZ and signing an autographed jersey for none other than Jared Dudley.
- Robin Lopez’s 14 points and four rebounds don’t look monstrous, but after the Kings scored inside early, Lopez shut the door and continues to be a huge reason for the Suns’ much-improved defense. The Kings only scored 38 points in the paint — the Suns scored 52 — and Lopez was a big reason why.