Goran Dragic becomes The Dragon in the fourth as Phoenix Suns erase 18-point deficit to take Game 3

The Dragon torched the Spurs for 23 points in the fourth quarter as the Suns cruised to victory. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The Dragon torched the Spurs for 23 points in the fourth quarter as the Suns cruised to victory. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Last year some people wondered if he was the worst player in the NBA and others simply called him Tragic.

But in a year’s time Goran Dragic has transformed from a shaky ball handler with confidence issues into a cold-blooded Dragon who spewed fire all over the San Antonio Spurs’ playoff chances Friday night with an awe-inspiring 23-point fourth quarter. That outburst helped the Phoenix Suns topple the Spurs in Game 3, 110-96, after rallying from an 18-point deficit to take a commanding 3-0 lead in their best-of-seven series.

In this ever-so-unpredictable rivalry that has featured everything from Steve Nash bloody noses in crunch time to Tim Duncan game-tying threes in overtime, nobody could have ever expected that Goran Dragic — Goran Dragic!! – would go MJ on us and explode for 23 points in the deciding period, coming a pair of missed free throws away from outscoring San Antonio in the quarter.

Dragic had it all working, whether it was faking out defenseless big men at the rim after one of the Spurs’ many switches, pulling up for the midrange jumper, knocking down open threes or converting on that memorable four-point play when Dragic drew a foul on a leaning George Hill and then tossed up a prayer that like everything else on this night managed to drop through the net.

In all Dragic poured in 23 points on 9-for-11 shooting and perfect 4-for-4 marksmanship from behind the arc in the quarter, this from a guy who pitched in just seven points on 3-for-14 shooting from the field and 1-for-5 shooting from distance in the previous 11 quarters of the series, a player who previously made his mark against the Spurs by doing everything but score. In the final 13:05, he scored all 26 of his points in this contest, bettering all but one outing in his entire career in the process.

It was a playoff performance for the ages, the kind of quarter typically reserved for the all-time greats, not some kid from Slovenia who yesterday celebrated his 24th birthday.

“I think it’s safe to say that may have been the best fourth-quarter performance I have ever seen in a playoff game,” Suns veteran Grant Hill told reporters after the game.

We’ve been talking all series — and really all season — about the Suns’ depth and what a weapon it is. In Game 1 the Suns’ stars carried them, in Game 2 Jared Dudley and Channing Frye were the difference makers and on this night in Game 3 it was all about Goran Dragic and Leandro Barbosa (more on him later) in the fourth quarter.

The most shocking part about this victory might be the fact that when the Suns made their decisive run, Nash, Amare and J-Rich didn’t have anything more to do with it than you or I did. They were handsomely-paid cheerleaders, as Nash didn’t enter until the 3:19 mark with Phoenix up 11 and Stoudemire and Richardson didn’t make an appearance at all, although J-Rich still scored 21 through three as Phoenix improved to 31-4 when he goes for 20.

But that’s OK with this team. On some teams, stars would probably mope about the fact that it wasn’t about them — and frankly, younger Amare probably mopes — but this squad is really all about the team. Those stars weren’t merely watching, they were engaged in the action, whooping it up like you probably were at home, and then they engulfed Goran Dragic in celebration as he sauntered off the court when the final horn sounded.

This was a great night for Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire and Jason Richardson because the Phoenix Suns won. From the heart, this is about the team and not about them.

Still, you would never see most teams’ three best players resting in crunch time, especially when their reserves were matched up against the opposition’s stars. But these Suns aren’t like most teams.

I wasn’t even surprised that Gentry stuck with the bench so long because he’s done it and it’s worked all year. He has played the hot hand all season long and he’s shown the kind of faith that you must show the entire year for your bench to win a game for you like it did tonight.

The Suns’ biggest strength right now might be that its bench cannot only outplay its opposition’s bench on most nights but also outplay opposing starters in key stretches when they get hot like they did tonight, and that’s a credit to the faith Gentry has shown in them.

It’s why “Goran Dragic” is right now the second-hottest search in America behind “Times Square Evacuation” and why he was a trending topic on Twitter earlier tonight.

It wasn’t just Dragic, though. Leandro Barbosa was his partner in crime in leading the Suns on a 29-14 tear to turn a one-point deficit into a 14-point lead in the first eight minutes of the deciding quarter. Aside from a Grant Hill jumper, the Suns’ backup backcourt was responsible for all 29 of the points, with LB contributing seven of them.

As John Hollinger wrote in the Daily Dime, the Suns scored 29 points on 13 possessions during this run, which averages out to better than a bucket per possession, with the only fruitless trip being when The Dragon missed his free throws. Not bad for a bench.

Considering how things ended, it’s pretty surprising that the Suns took their first lead of the game on a nifty Dragic layup early in the fourth after they trailed by as many as 18 points in the first half. After scoring just 19 points in a timid first quarter in which the Suns looked a bit overwhelmed by the surroundings, they went for 39 in the deciding period, when they led by 16 for a swing of 34 points.

Early in the game the Suns struggled to find any semblance of an offensive rhythm, and if it weren’t for San Antonio missing seven consecutive foul shots in the first half, they may have been blown out for good early.

But Gentry kept telling his squad to fight, and that’s what they did, bearing down on defense to contain San Antonio while chipping away at the lead little by little, first cutting it in half with a 10-1 run in the second and then withstanding a Manu Ginobili explosion in the third to cut it to one after three. Losing a game like this had Manu so exasperated that he told reporters the Spurs would have to play “a perfect game” to beat Phoenix.

The Suns now lead the best-of-seven series 3-0, a deficit no team has ever come back from. Yes, if there ever were to be a first it would be in a Suns-Spurs series, a rivalry in which everything else has gone wrong for the Suns this decade.

But with the way the Suns have outplayed the Spurs in so many contrasting ways, this just feels different.

In his Wednesday column about the Suns, while referring to an English Premier League game in his lead up to writing about Phoenix, ESPN’s Bill Simmons wrote:

I tried to explain to Steiny Mo that these things can turn only in the most dramatic of ways. It will never be a typical win. It will be a life experience. It will break you down in sections. It will take you to the abyss and back. You will have to be stripped of any and all hope, and then — and only then — will you see a light. That’s the way these things work. When the Red Sox won those eight straight games in October ’04, the beautiful thing was that streak went against everything I ever believed in. It was so improbable, and so ridiculous, that it somehow made sense.

This win was so ridiculous that despite that previous passage being about the only team in professional baseball or basketball history to ever come back from an 0-3 deficit, it describes the Suns perfectly as well.

Fighting back from an early 18-point deficit in this house of horrors against the rival that has pushed them around all decade and then hip checked them into the boards for good measure and doing so with their three best players on the bench and a 24-year-old kid from Slovenia — who a year ago was better known as Tragic — doing the bulk of the damage is the most improbable, ridiculous scenario I could ever imagine.

I mean, this is the Suns playing gritty defense and getting surprise contributions from role players while the Spurs helplessly wilted down the stretch.

Sure, the Suns weren’t 0-3 desperate this game like the 2004 Red Sox were, but if the Suns were ever going to reverse the so-called Curse of San Antonio, it was going to take a life experience.

So The Dragon emerged from his lair and torched the Spurs in the fourth quarter while the Suns’ stars rested to cap a comeback that was so improbable and ridiculous that it actually makes perfect sense.

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