Ladies and gentleman, the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, your Phoenix Suns.
Nope, definitely didn’t expect to be typing those words at the start of the season, but such is reality after the Suns rolled their second straight contender, this time taking down the Utah Jazz in a 100-86 victory that wasn’t as close as the final score.
The Suns will now take on the Portland Trail Blazers in a series that starts Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. MST in US Airways Center.
For the second straight night the Suns faced off against an adversary that was their equal in the standings and just lay the smackdown on them after crushing Denver last night.
Utah, who had won 10 in a row at home, at least had the excuse of being without Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko, but aside from a 10-point burst from Mehmet Okur in the first quarter, the Jazz were never in this one either.
While the Suns played with the focus and poise of a squad peaking at the right time, like the Nuggets the Jazz absolutely folded, never making a run after Phoenix exploded for a 15-1 spurt early in the second quarter. From the middle of that run on when Phoenix took a double-digit lead, it did not see that lead drop into single digits for the remaining 31:37 of the game.
The Suns blew a 17-point lead and a 13-point lead earlier this season to Utah, and they blew a 17-point lead in Denver back in December. But those games seem like seasons ago for these Suns, who held a double-digit lead for all but 21 seconds yesterday after taking one four minutes into the game.
Combined between the two nights, the Suns led by double figures for about 76 minutes the last two games against teams practically even with them in the standings. Yes, they didn’t just lead, they led by double digits.
Alvin Gentry was talking the other day about how this is a different Suns team than the one that made a habit of blowing leads back in December and January. I remember during the Jan. 25 Utah game as I was watching the lead expand all I could think was, “How high will this lead get before they blew it?”
And inevitably, blow it they did. This time the game was pretty much over after the Suns made their big run.
Going back a little further, I find it interesting that the game that ultimately decided Phoenix’s playoff fate was played in EnergySolutions Arena two years in a row.
Last season you may remember the Suns choking away a sure win on a botched inbounds play in a game featuring crazy runs on both sides. If the Suns inbound the ball, they make the playoffs last year, but that was kind of the story of last season: so close, but ultimately they just couldn’t get it done. The Suns played like the No. 9 seed in the West and got what they deserved.
This year the Suns played like the No. 3 seed in the West and will get what they deserve after winning a game that catapulted them to sole possession of third place in the conference.
After an even first quarter that could have been a blowout in Phoenix’s favor if not for the 10-point burst from Okur in just over a minute, the Suns turned it on in the second quarter when the reserve units from both squads were in.
Utah didn’t miss Boozer and AK-47 so much in the starting lineup; they were hurt most by forcing their key bench guys into the starting lineup, thus weakening their bench, and the Suns took advantage during the fateful run.
Phoenix’s bench outscored their counterparts 50-13 and at one point it was something like 40-4. Channing Frye (15) outscored the Utah bench on his own, and Goran Dragic (12) and Jared Dudley (11) weren’t far behind.
The other thing that impressed me about this game was how active Phoenix’s defense was. The Suns were all over the place, getting steals and blocks and turning them into points on the other end, while holding a Jazz team that entered the day leading the league in field-goal percentage to just 37.5 percent shooting.
Throughout the Daily Dime Live chat I kept having to field questions about how the Suns play no ‘D’ while watching one Suns deflection lead to a fast-break hoop after another. Oh, the irony. The Suns finished with 10 steals and 10 blocks, with Lou Amundson leading the way with four stuffs and four Phoenix players recording at least a pair of steals. In all the bench accounted for seven blocks and seven steals.
“Our second unit did a phenomenal job for us tonight,” Amare Stoudemire told Suns.com. “They are going to be very important going into the playoffs. I think it was a collective effort and now we’ll try and keep it going into the playoffs.”
The win closes out a 28-7 sprint to the finish for Phoenix that gives the Suns the fifth-best record in the entire NBA. Who else thought that would be the case at the start of the season? It also means that we don’t exactly need to worry about the Suns giving Oklahoma City any kind of a valuable pick in the Kurt Thomas deal. That selection will be 26th, the kind of pick the Suns often deal anyway. Sarver should feel lucky to have dodged that bullet.
As the Suns charge into postseason play against the Portland Trail Blazers this weekend, consider the fact that Phoenix finished just three games behind the Lakers for the top spot in the West. That means if they had only gone .500 instead of 12-18 during that horrendous December and January stretch that followed their 14-3 start, we could be talking about a No. 1 seed for the Suns.
The fact that a top seed was even a possibility shows how grossly the Suns overachieved during the regular season. Even as recently as a couple weeks ago, a No. 3 seemed like a long shot.
But the Suns, who have won 14 of 16, followed what their coach has been preaching for weeks: If you win, you control your own destiny.
The Suns won, and now they are destined for the No. 3 seed.