PHOENIX — When the Suns blew a lead to the Jazz in late January, I counted the points as the advantage expanded, waiting to see how high the lead would get before the Suns would inevitably blow it.
But that was then when the Suns had coughed up 11 double-digit leads and dropped six such games in a month and a half, not now when the Suns had won 12 straight games in which they took a double-digit advantage since the first Utah game.
After maintaining a lead of 10-plus points for most of the first three quarters after a hot start, the Suns of December and January reared their ugly heads again Thursday night with Phoenix being outscored 41-22 in the decisive fourth quarter and falling, 116-108, to the Jazz on TNT.
“We played great for three quarters,” said Suns forward Amare Stoudemire. “We played great defensively up until that point in the fourth quarter.
“We didn’t play great defense down the stretch. It’s unacceptable.”
Through three quarters, the Phoenix Suns played one of their better games of the year.
They outshot the Jazz 64.2 percent to 39.1 percent, which was discouraging only because that mammoth disparity only amounted to an 11-point lead. You knew both teams would regress to the mean a bit at some point, and that’s when Utah’s 19 offensive rebounds and Phoenix’s 18 turnovers made such a difference.
When the Suns went cold in the fourth and the Jazz started hitting treys from all angles, Phoenix suffered one of its biggest fourth-quarter collapses of the season, with Utah taking its first lead since 2-0 with about three minutes remaining and pulling away from there. The Suns had led by double figures with seven minutes remaining in the game.
In that decisive fourth the Jazz shot 68.4 percent to the Suns’ 40.0 percent, while Utah seemed to get to every loose ball during its 28-10 spurt over the final seven minutes.
“They did a great job of executing down the stretch, and we struggled a little bit of getting the ball in the basket and making plays,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “You have to give them all the credit, it’s not so much what we didn’t do, it’s more what they did do. They made the necessary shots and they came up with good defensive plays, and I really thought we kind of ran out of gas there at the end.”
The Suns, who beat the Clippers last night in Los Angeles, were playing their fourth game in five days, with Steve Nash’s back and abdomen ailing and his backups Goran Dragic (sprained ankle) and of course Leandro Barbosa (wrist surgery) out with injuries.
Grant Hill played a yeoman’s game with 17 points and seven boards with some backup point guard duty to boot in 38 minutes, and Amare Stoudemire went for 30 points for the second straight night and seventh time in 16 games, but it wasn’t enough to propel the Suns to fourth in the West when Utah went hot in the fourth.
Although they didn’t have the kind of “push,” as Gentry said, that they normally would with Goran playing backup point guard, the Suns’ coach was overall pleased with how the Suns played without a point guard when Nash rested. Hill did a more than capable job, posting up smaller guards and even going back to the 1995 Fila-wearing version of himself with a ferocious dunk in traffic.
The biggest concern coming out of this one is the health of Nash. Athletes are a proud bunch, usually choosing not to talk about pain until they can’t play anymore. Without trying to make excuses, Nash stood at his locker and explained how much he’s hurting right now.
“I just can’t do the things I want to do,” Nash said. “It’s painful out there, but I’ve got to find a way to suck it up right now, especially with Goran out. It’s not a lot of fun to play like this, but I’ve got to find a way to try to fight through it.”
“Hopefully it will get better. I’m sure four in five nights didn’t help. I just can’t do what I want to do out there. I’ve just got to do what I can to help the team. Hopefully I’m not hurting the team.”
Nash is battling both an injured back and an abdominal strain, with every movement causing his back to tighten.
“It’s just such a pileup of games and things going on, and cumulatively it’s been a stretch where it’s tough, and now I’m paying for it,” Nash said.
The good news about Nash’s issues is that after Saturday’s game the Suns do not play again until Friday night. That’s five full days off to rest his ailing back and abdomen, a de facto All-Star break for a guy whose All-Star weekend was anything but a break.
Upon first glance of the box score you wouldn’t think Nash was hurting, as he went for 14 points on 6-for-11 shooting and 15 assists, but his seven ugly turnovers — a few of which were uncharacteristic — really hurt the Suns.
With a 37-year-old Grant Hill essentially their only other option at the point for Saturday, this week off couldn’t come soon enough for Phoenix.
The porous ending should not completely cancel out how well the Suns played before the final seven minutes. Especially in the first quarter, the Suns were a bundle of energy playing a fourth game in five nights, and it just goes to show you that when the Suns play with that kind of fire they’re as good as anybody.
But when they’re turning the ball over and getting killed on the offensive glass, they’re pretty mediocre, as we originally learned in December and January.
The Suns lost a chance to move into fourth in the West and they started this seven-game homestand on a sour note, but nobody is getting too down with Phoenix still having won 13 of 17.
“It’s a little bump in the road, disappointing, but we have another game around the corner,” Hill said. “As great as we felt yesterday, we feel bad now, and we have a chance to feel great hopefully on Saturday, so we’ve got to bounce back, learn from this and most importantly get a win.”
Is the Curse of TNT back? The Suns won 13 of 16 including the curse breaker Jan. 28 against Dallas after dropping 18 straight games on the network. Tonight’s loss was Phoenix’s first appearance on TNT since. Will it reverse the team’s hot play of late? … The Suns are 30-3 when leading after three against every NBA team not based in Utah and 0-2 in such situations against the Jazz. … The Suns won 18 of the first 20 games in which J-Rich went for 20, but they have now lost two of their past three such games after Richardson went for 22 tonight. The shooting guard has reached that mark in six of eight games overall. … Amare recorded consecutive 30-point games for the first time since March 29-31, 2008. … The Suns lost their first home game since the All-Star break. … This contest marked the Suns’ final 8:30 p.m. Phoenix time tip of the season.