PHOENIX — It’s hard to put into words how important this one was for the Suns.
It was crucial to win the first game of a gauntlet season-ending stretch. Crucial to win without Robin Lopez. And crucial to contain Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.
The Suns did it all Wednesday night and played some of their best defense all year en route to a 112-101 win over the San Antonio Spurs, taking the season series for the second time in the last three seasons in the process.
“It was a total team effort,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. “At some stage, everyone contributed.”
The Suns outplayed the Spurs on defense (it’s really weird to say that) and forced them to make mistakes. The Spurs committed 19 turnovers for 26 Suns points. This is clearly not the Spurs team that won four NBA championships.
“We really wanted this game tonight and it showed on the defensive end,” Suns guard Jason Richardson said after the game.
With 1:23 to go in the first half, the Suns flipped the switch on defense. In that span, the defense sparked an 11-2 run to give the Suns a nice cushion, 61-52 at the break.
“Defensively, we have to play at that level,” Suns forward Jared Dudley said after the game.
After a late lapse in which the Spurs cut a 14-point second-half lead to five early in the fourth, the defense took the win to the bank in a crucial fourth-quarter stretch. With just under seven minutes to play, Suns forward Jared Dudley drew a crucial charge to spark an 11-2 Suns run, seven of which were scored by Goran Dragic, who played so well in the fourth the Suns never brought back Steve Nash.
Grant Hill, who finished with 17 points and eight rebounds, put an exclamation point on the win with a fast-break monster dunk off a Dragic steal to cap a 19-7 run and put the Suns up 109-92 with 3:54 remaining.
“We amped up our defensive intensity and Goran did a great job out there getting some steals,” Suns forward Amare Stoudemire said. “Those led to some easy baskets.”
Limiting Duncan and Ginobili proved most key, especially with the way Ginobili has played lately. Ginobili finished with just 10 points and four assists. Duncan collected an uncharacteristic 14 points and seven rebounds.
“Our guys did a really good job at containing Ginobili,” Gentry said. “We tried to limit Tim’s touches as much as we could.”
But it wasn’t ALL clutch defense that won the game, as evidenced by the 101 points allowed. The Suns’ starters put on an offensive clinic against the Spurs.
Stoudemire had another huge night (surprise!), scoring 29 points and pulling in eight rebounds. Richardson added 20 points and Steve Nash gave a vintage performance, running circles around the Spurs for much of the game (particularly when guarded by D-League callup Garrett Temple. Nominate that for mismatch of the season).
Nash tallied 18 points and 12 assists, but what was more impressive was how he looked physically. Getting a few days off to rest his back clearly did a lot of good, and Nash was able to be the playmaker that he is at full strength.
So the Suns did exactly what they needed to do. To a “T.” The bad part of it all (and it’s strange to say that there was something bad about a win over the Spurs)? It changed nothing.
The Mavericks won and the Nuggets won Wednesday as well, and a three-way tie remained for second in the Western Conference. Only Utah, who lost 113-96 to the Rockets Wednesday, fell back half a game. Technically, the Suns are in fourth place, as the Nuggets and Mavericks hold tiebreakers over the Suns because they are division leaders.
“It doesn’t do anything for us,” Gentry joked after the game. “I don’t think there’s anything whatsoever that’s been decided other than the Lakers and the No. 1 seed.”
Gentry stressed, as he has a lot recently, that he still feels that his team controls its own destiny. He further added that he hasn’t been paying too much attention to what other teams do on each night because he is focused on the Suns.
“If we continue to take care of business and do what we’re supposed to do, we won’t have to watch the scoreboard or ask anybody for help,” Gentry said.
The win Wednesday made the Suns 20-5 since the All-Star break, still the best mark in the NBA over that stretch. But more than that, it solidified their standing as the league’s hottest team because they beat one of the other hottest teams. The Spurs entered the game on a four-game winning streak.
Maybe more than anything though, the Suns showed that they can win without Robin Lopez. There’s no telling for sure if that would prove true over a seven-game series, but a win over a team with a good big man like Duncan is a very good indication that the Suns have what it takes to get by without him.
Gentry said before the game that there is no timetable for Lopez’s return. But the efforts of Channing Frye (12 points, five rebounds off the bench) and Stoudemire proved enough to fill the gap with Lopez out.
Now with four games remaining against Oklahoma City, Houston, Denver and Utah, the Suns have to stay focused and bring the same kind of energy on both ends of the floor every night.
“Playing the Spurs is always a tough game, especially down the stretch when every team is fighting for playoff standing,” Stoudemire said. “The way we played tonight was phenomenal. We just have to keep it going.”
With the win, the Suns became the only NBA team to record 30 or more home wins in five of the last six seasons. The Spurs could match the feat if they win their final three home games. … The Suns scored 110 or more points in all three games against the Spurs this season. That marks the first time Phoenix has scored that many points against San Antonio in three consecutive regulation games since a stretch from April 11, 1987, to Feb. 18, 1988. …The Suns managed to win despite yielding 20 offensive rebounds and losing the second-chance points battle 25-10.