Suns 101, Nuggets 85 -- Zoned out

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PHOENIX — Excruciating losses to the Spurs are still commonplace, but times are a changing for the Phoenix Suns.

Playing an offensive powerhouse like the Denver Nuggets, the old Phoenix Suns would have needed a monster offensive effort from their starters to grab a win.

Instead it was defense and a stellar performance from their bench that led to a 101-85 victory over the former No. 2 seed in the West on Monday night.

“The second unit got us going, so it was good,” said Suns forward Grant Hill. “That was the difference.”

The Suns trailed 37-24 almost two minutes into the second quarter when the game turned on its head with the Suns playing Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, Lou Amundson and Channing Frye with the starter Hill. That unit used an active zone defense to outscore Denver 33-7 the rest of the half, allowing the Suns to cruise to a surprisingly easy victory in the second half.

The Nuggets had shot 59.3 percent before the game turned, only to shoot 34.0 percent the rest of the way.

What’s most amazing about the run is that it went down while Nash and Amare sat on the bench. Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said he hoped to rest Nash the entire quarter anyway, and how nice it must have been to watch his reserves not only keep the Suns in the game but essentially win it.

Their superb defense fed their offense, and before you knew it a 13-point deficit had become a 13-point lead, as Phoenix held the NBA’s second-highest scoring team to 11 points in the quarter thanks to a drought of almost five minutes. In all it was the Nuggets’ lowest-scoring quarter of the season and the Suns’ best defensive 12 minutes of the year.

“I think we all take pride in bringing that energy off the bench, and we were successful when we went to the zone,” said Suns forward Lou Amundson. “That really frustrated them offensively. We just kept going with that. I think that turned into buckets at the other end, fast-break points, and it just ignited the crowd. It was a huge part of our win.

“We just wanted to give them a different look. I don’t think any of us expected to be in it that long, but we were having such success with it we just figured, ‘Stay in until they figure it out,’ and they never did.”

Gentry devised the zone knowing how good Denver is against a man defense, and like the Miami win in November, it seemed to catch the Nuggets off guard.

“It just worked,” Hill said. “They never really made that adjustment. It hasn’t always worked, but it worked tonight.

“It’s all about rhythm. Sometimes it takes teams out of rhythm and the momentum changes. It can be a weapon for us.”

Although ValleyoftheSuns guest writer Milee Karre argued against widespread use of the zone in a post last week, I think it can be an effective change of pace defense when the opponent isn’t expecting it. It’s not a defense that can really be a bread and butter strategy for this Suns ballclub, but against certain teams in certain situations it really works.

Using a lineup of interchangeable defenders in Dragic-Dudley-Hill-Lou-Frye is a big reason the zone worked so well in the second quarter, and it could be another reason Gentry stuck with that group aside from bringing in J-Rich for Dudley for the remainder of the quarter. That is a unit that can thrive in a zone, as it did tonight.

It’s almost strange to see Phoenix winning a battle between the league’s best two offenses with defense, rebounding (plus 10) and bench play, but that’s exactly what happened.

The Suns’ bench was a combined plus 62 for the game, with Frye a plus 21, Dragic a plus 20 and Lou a plus 16.

This wasn’t the first time Lou and the bench surged against the Nuggets. In a 105-99 loss earlier this season in the Mile High City, Lou sparked a 19-2 second-quarter bench run and went for his only double-double of the season with 12 points, 11 boards and four blocks.

This time around Lou rang up seven points, seven boards (four offensive) and a couple blocks on his hometown team, but his plus-minus shows you how little those stats tell the story of his excellent night.

“I thought Lou did a great job, he kept some balls alive, blocked some shots, was really active in the zone and did a good job of running guys off shots.” Gentry said. “Some guys just play better against some teams. It could be the fact he’s from 20 miles from there.”

Added Amundson, “I grew up being a fan, so I seem to play well against them. I don’t know if that’s subconsciously. … I don’t know what it is. I think maybe it’s just good matchups or just coincidence. I seem to have good games against them.”

Amundson was also a big part of a Suns defense that, believe it or not, is starting to become pretty darn good. Phoenix has now held its opponent below 100 points for the fourth time in its last five home games and five of nine times overall, as the Suns are holding teams to an un-Suns-like 97.4 ppg since the break.

Their opposition has scored fewer than 90 points three times since the break after the Suns failed to hold a single team below that mark before the break.

Predictably, Phoenix improved to 15-0 when preventing teams from hitting the century mark.

“If you take under consideration they’re averaging 107 points a game and they’re the second-leading scoring team in the league I would say it could go down as our best defensive performance,” Gentry said. “Every time you start talking about defense and the Suns everyone has these sarcastic smiles on their face, but we are getting better defensively.”

That first Denver game also marked the start of the Suns’ month and a half of chronically blowing double-digit leads after Phoenix coughed up a 17-point advantage in that one. By contrast, the Nuggets never cut the Suns’ lead to single digits tonight when the Suns won their 11th straight game in which they took a double-digit advantage.

What’s shocking is they had blown 11 double-digit leads from Dec. 11 in Denver until Jan. 25 in Utah, the game before the current streak began, with Phoenix dropping six of them and (no joke) blowing double-digit leads six games in a row at one point.

Now all of a sudden even a double-digit lead is safe in Phoenix.

“It’s a great win for us, especially coming off the game that we had last night,” Gentry said. “I thought we kind of righted the ship.”

And 1

  • J-Rich on how hard he took the missed dunk: “I didn’t get any sleep. I went to sleep at about 5 a.m. this morning, watching the play over and over, and I just woke up this morning and was like, ‘Hey, it’s in the past, it’s only one game and it’s not going to dictate the rest of our future or dictate our playoff situation. It’s just one game, so put it behind you and just move on.’”
  • Gentry recently told Lou it’s OK for him to be pissed at the head coach for playing him just 22 minutes in the last three games combined and for less than 20 minutes every game since Robin Lopez’s first as a starter so long as he’s ready to play when called upon. Lou’s reaction: “I’d like to play more of course. I’m here to contribute either way. If I don’t play one game or get 20 minutes the next I’m going to come and prepare the same way and play the same way. Of course I’d like to play more, but I understand it’s not always going to be the case. I’ve got to try to stay levelheaded and contribute every night I’m given the opportunity.”
  • Grant Hill played his best second game of a back-to-back of the season, scoring 19 points on 6-for-14 shooting while contributing solid D and racking up a plus 19 for the game after entering tonight averaging 8.6 ppg on 43.4 percent shooting in second games on the year. It was his highest-scoring back-to-back affair of the year. “I wasn’t pleased with how I performed in back-to-backs this year, and I made a couple changes in my pregame, just getting rest and making sure I eat right,” Hill said.
  • Dragic needed four stitches in his upper lip after taking a Chauncey Billups elbow to the face. Thankfully his girlfriend won’t be in town for about another week and a half. … Phoenix joined Sacramento as the only teams to record multiple wins over the Nuggets this season. … The Suns won their 10th straight home game over Denver, with the Nuggets winless in the Valley during the Nash era. … Phoenix is 14-3 in US Airways Center against West opponents this season and 12-3 in its last 15 overall, with eight of those wins coming against playoff contenders. … The Suns are 4-1 in home second games of a back-to-back but just 2-8 in such road games. … Phoenix made its 11th double-digit comeback of the season and its fifth from a deficit of at least 13 points. It’s the second time the Suns have won by double digits in a game they trailed by at least 10 (Feb. 21 vs. Sacramento).

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