The Phoenix Suns all year have claimed they could win with both offense and defense, playing both fast and slow, and they did just that during their 28-7 finishing kick.
But could they do it in the playoffs when the defenses tightened and games slowed to a crawl?
If Thursday night’s series-clinching Game 6 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers was any indication, the answer is a definitive “Hell yes!” after the Suns did the unthinkable: win a playoff game without reaching the century mark.
Fittingly the Suns’ 99-90 victory earns them a date with those ever so evil San Antonio Spurs, a team that has won four championships by excelling in the physical, grinding games while being versatile enough to run with squads like the Suns.
The Suns all along have hoped that that versatility could be the difference for them, and it was on a night when Steve Nash‘s gimpy hip had him at well less than 100 percent, particularly in a careless first half that featured seven turnovers.
For the game, the Suns held the Blazers to just 97.8 points per 100 possessions (every NBA team gave up at least 100 points per 100 possessions on average during the regular season) while limiting Portland to 38.0 percent shooting from the field (or a 44.9 effective field goal percentage for those of you who prefer those kind of stats).
That is getting it done.
Phoenix limited Portland’s key scorers, with Martell Webster (19 points) and Rudy Fernandez (16 points) doing the most damage off the bench as the Suns geared their defense around stopping LaMarcus Aldridge (16 points, 5-for-17), Brandon Roy (14 points, 4-for-16) and Andre Miller (four points, 2-for-10). The Blazers won’t win many games when their stars take more shots than they score points a la Game 1 Amare.
“At the end of the night, they shoot 38 percent and to me, that’s a credit to our defense,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “Nobody really talks about it, but we like it. In the locker room, we pat each other on the back.”
After Portland rallied from a 16-point deficit late in the third to tie the game at 76 with eight minutes remaining in the contest, the Suns appeared to be losing control of the game with Webster and Fernandez going bonkers from distance.
But the Suns promptly answered with an 8-0 run that featured all four baskets being scored on layups, the final two of which came when Amare found J-Rich at the rim on consecutive possessions after he made a pair of swift cuts to get past Fernandez. In all, Phoenix held Portland without a field goal for four and a half crucial minutes after the game was tied, and then Nash came up with that late three and sick dish to Amare sequence to ice it.
Perhaps the most valuable Sun on this night was a man who contributed just three points in 31 minutes, but if there ever were a reason not to judge players by how many points they score just pop in the film of Grant Hill tonight. The 37-year-old did everything else.
Along with the three points, you will find a game-high 12 rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks — one a monster denial of Jerryd Bayless at the end of the half — in Mr. Hill’s stat line. Oh yeah, he also played sticky defense (see the stats of Portland’s lead guards), and was a game-best plus 26. You think Hill could taste the second round?
The best subplot of the series was how after 15 years in the NBA Grant Hill has finally won a playoff series, a journey that J.A. Adande beautifully foreshadowed earlier Thursday.
“It made me cry, Craig,” Hill joked to TNT’s Craig Sager. “No, I’m just happy. Really it’s more for the guys on the team, for the young guys to get some playoff experience. I’m done worrying about my legacy. I’ve just got to get the Stoudmeire legacy going, and hopefully we’re not done.”
It was a classic Hill answer, but I think he’s veiling what this really means to him. He may have thought he’d never reach the second round when his ankles turned to jelly, and after re-signing with a Suns team that few thought would be in this position he couldn’t have known that this would finally be the year.
On the offensive end, Jason Richardson exploded for 28 points on 10-for-16 shooting from the field and 5-for-8 shooting on threes, including 19 in the first half. He once again was a barometer for the Suns this series after they went 26-4 in the regular season when he scored at least 20 points by averaging 28.0 ppg on 60 percent shooting from the field and 62 percent shooting from three in the four wins, compared to 14.5 ppg on 35.7 percent field-goal shooting and 28.6 percent shooting from deep in the losses. The Suns not surprisingly were a perfect 3-0 when he hit the magic 20 mark.
Off the bench Goran Dragic played his best game of the series with 10 points, three assists and no turnovers (Suns not named Nash or Stoudemire turned it over just twice), and Jared Dudley came up with 12 huge points to go with a couple blocks and a steal. He scored five quick points at the end of the third after Portland had cut the lead to four — hitting a three that he got fouled on and then drawing a foul on a rebound at the other end for free throws — that helped stem a Portland run as well.
“We have a calmness about us,” Gentry said. “Our bench has the ability to do things for us to keep us in games. I thought that Goran and those guys, LB… They kept us to the point where we didn’t want to play Steve and those guys for the last 10 minutes.”
Whereas Phoenix’s previous wins in the series resulted in some Portland’s biggest blowout losses of the season, this game really came down to grit. The Suns’ superstar was at less than his best but came up with the big plays when his team needed them, and Phoenix made a run right when Portland had demolished its lead.
The Suns were the tougher team at the end, with Grant Hill defending all over the floor, holding a team on the brink of elimination without a basket for a good chunk of the fourth quarter.
The Blazers put up a good fight, but in the end they just didn’t have the firepower to match the Suns, especially when Phoenix started to play playoff-caliber defense. Phoenix shut down Portland’s scorers and forced role players to beat them, and they just couldn’t.
Looking ahead to San Antonio, I would be shocked if we see three blowouts again. Instead I would expect the Suns to need to use the formula they rode to this series-clinching victory: tough defense, timely threes and execution down the stretch.
Sounds a bit like the Spurs, doesn’t it?