PHOENIX — Twice this season the Phoenix Suns have taken solid leads into the fourth quarter against the Utah Jazz.
Twice this season the Jazz have stormed back with monster fourth quarters to score a resounding victory.
So this time around when the Suns built a 14-point lead after three by holding Utah to a season-low shooting pace for a Phoenix opponent (34.3 percent), the Suns were ready to withstand another big run.
That big run never came, as the Suns righted themselves whenever Utah made a mini-spurt and held off the Jazz 110-100 while never letting the lead reach single digits in one of Phoenix’s more impressive victories of the season.
“We lost our momentum a little bit in the second half, but we never lost control of the game, and that was kind of the difference from the previous two games,” said Suns guard Steve Nash.
Phoenix fans are used to Nash and Amare Stoudemire making huge plays offensively, and they certainly did in this one, but for once both guys chipped in with alert defensive plays as well to stem one of Utah’s best runs of the game.
After cutting a 20-point lead to 14 thanks to an 8-2 spurt and while getting set to do more damage after an Amare turnover, Nash alertly stole the ball back and took it in all alone for a layup. Stoudemire followed that play up by stealing the next inbounds pass and taking it in for an emphatic slam himself.
Right when Utah looked poise to put a serious dent in Phoenix’s lead, the advantage was back up to 18 and with six minutes to go the Jazz didn’t have much of a chance from there.
“That was nice,” Stoudemire said. “That was definitely a momentum booster. They were starting to make a run, and we cut their run short with a couple baskets there. It was definitely a momentum shift.”
It’s kind of strange that maybe Stoudemire’s biggest play of the game was a steal of an inbounds pass because Amare made just about every play on the offensive end in this one. The Suns got a monster game out of STAT, who scored a season-high 44 points on 14-of-16 shooting from the field and 16-of-18 shooting from the line. He torched Utah for 15 points in the first quarter and then 18 in the fourth quarter when the injured Jazz threw small forward C.J. Miles on STAT for a stretch for reasons unknown to the rest of the world.
Of his two missed field goals, one came while he was in the midst of losing the ball, making it arguable that it should not have been deemed a shot attempt. STAT was just that locked in, demolishing anybody Utah put on him, and when they turned to the 6-foot-6 Miles in the fourth it just wasn’t fair.
“It’s a beautiful thing for us when somebody can dominate like that inside,” Nash said. “He’s playing with so much heart and passion for the game, it’s great to see. It really looks like he’s enjoying it.”
How couldn’t Stoudemire have been enjoying this one? Utah was already missing Andrei Kirilenko (calf) and then Mehmet Okur got sick and missed the second half as well as the end of the first. That meant Kyrylo Fesenko got nine minutes of burn, but all he did was foul out and watch Amare drop buckets on him in that time.
Of course a high-scoring affair is nothing new for Stoudemire, who has scored at least 19 in 22 straight (two shy of Tom Chambers’ franchise record in that department) and tied Kevin Durant for most 30-point games since the break (eight) in this one.
Amare also added to his own franchise record with his 15th career 40-point game, and it’s only been 20 days since his last 40-point performance Feb. 28 at San Antonio, the fewest amount of days between 40-point efforts of his career.
His streak of consecutive free throws ended at a Nash-like 33, three shy of a career high, but he still hit 16 of his Suns-season-high 18 attempts.
Most impressive was how ruthlessly efficient he was, needing just 16 shots to score 44. How many shots does it normally take Kobe to drop 44?
“It was just understanding how important this game really was for us, and I wanted to come out with great focus on both ends and try to spark some energy out there and really just try to dominate,” said Stoudemire, who attributed his comfort on the floor to some extra work he’s been doing shooting the ball during this homestand and called it just “one of those nights.”
The negatives of this game were the 18 offensive rebounds Utah corralled and Phoenix’s 22 turnovers, fairly similar numbers to the 19 offensive boards and 18 turnovers the team committed in its March 4 loss to the Jazz.
But the Suns’ field-goal defense was stellar, as they held the NBA’s best shooting team to just 38.6 percent shooting, more than 10 percent below their 49.1 percent season average entering the game. This contest marked the Suns’ ninth holding their opponent under 40 percent shooting, and five of them have come in Phoenix’s last 22 games in which the team is 17-5.
I did not participate in the Daily Dime Live chat to pay a little closer attention to the game, and it’s amazing the kind of difference Robin Lopez makes on the defensive end, not to mention his offensive contribution in this one by going for 19 and 10.
I thought Robin did a fantastic job on Carlos Boozer, who scored 23 points but needed 23 shots to get them. That’s not exactly Amare efficiency, and Boozer was a different player when guarded by Channing Frye instead of Lopez.
Robin also helped Nash a bit on Deron Williams in the pick-and-roll game, helping limit Williams to a pedestrian 13 and six. Lopez contributed four big blocks as well, setting the tone for a Suns defense that is no longer Pillsbury Doughboy soft in the middle.
“I think he established early in the game that he’d be able to protect the basket some,” Gentry said.
Finally, this win helped jumble up the middle of the West playoff picture even more. The Suns moved a game behind No. 4 Utah and kept pace with No. 5 Oklahoma City, a team that leads Phoenix by percentage points after beating Toronto on Friday. Nos. 4-7 are within one game in the loss column, and No. 8 Portland (Sunday’s visitor) is only 2 1/2 behind fourth.
If the Suns wanted to have any shot at that one remaining top-four seed that looks attainable, this is a win they had to have. By bursting out of the gates with a quick 11-2 run and leading wire to wire while maintaining a big lead throughout, Phoenix did just that.
“It was definitely a big game for us, very important,” Amare said. “Every game now down the stretch is important, especially when you play teams that are in the playoff picture in the Western Conference. Tonight we came out with great focus, we played well on both ends, we got the lead this time and maintained it, which is very important. That was a key for us tonight, and we were able to get it done.”
In one of the most bizarre endings you will ever see in a then-11-point game, Grant Hill fouled Ronnie Price pretty hard going up for a last-second layup with the game already decided. I love the fact that Hill played hard to the buzzer despite the game being over. I feel it sends a message (as strange as it sounds) that the Phoenix Suns won’t allow easy layups no matter what’s going on in the game.
In the ensuing aftermath with two-tenths of a second left, Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan was ejected. Sloan later complained to reporters that he was mad about Amare being in front of his bench after Stoudemire jogged to the other side of the court to congratulate his teammates when he thought the game was over.
No, it was no Amare leaving the bench situation as the horn sounded before STAT left, but still a pretty strange ending to a solid win for the Phoenix Suns.
Said Stoudemire of Sloan’s gripes, “I’m not sure what he’s commenting on. The game was over according to the clock, [and I] ran down to give my guys high fives like I always do after every game. I think that is just an excuse he’s making up.”