PHOENIX — A week ago the Phoenix Suns were embarrassed by Denver in an ugly game that capped a putrid preseason that had to make even the most optimistic Suns fan question whether the team could just turn it on when the games count.
One week later the Suns have just one win and two losses, but they have played well enough to inspire hope.
“We’re still finding our way, but I like our effort,” Grant Hill said. “I like how we fought hard, and we just lost to a better team. We’ll see them again, and hopefully we’ll be better next time.”
The Lakers indeed are the better team, nobody in the building will argue that after Los Angeles’ 114-106 victory over the Suns on Friday in a game the defending champs controlled throughout.
The Suns did, however, manage to stick around all game, even tying things up with 3:40 left in the third. Phoenix later cut a 13-point lead to five with 5:23 to go, but six straight Lakers points put the game out of reach.
The Suns had no answer for Pau Gasol (21 points), Lamar Odom decimated Hedo Turkoglu and co. for a 18-17-5 line (which wasn’t one bit lucky), Kobe went for his usual game-high 25 and many of the role players hit big shots when the Suns doubled.
Much like the postseason series between these two teams, the Suns were able to score on the Lakers, but Los Angeles just brought too much firepower on the other end, and when guys like Ron Artest and Matt Barnes drill three long balls apiece and the stars all play well, the Suns don’t have much of a shot.
“To me all I ask our guys is to play hard and play with great effort,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “They did that tonight. We see where we have to get to if we want to be in the championship mix, this team right there, and I think they’re very good.
“I did say to the guys we’re not going to play the Lakers every night either. If we play with that kind of effort and if we execute like that and we rebound just a little bit better, we have a chance to be pretty good.”
The Suns made this a ball game first and foremost by competing on the boards. Sure, Odom corralled 17 to Turkoglu’s six, but the Lakers outrebounded Phoenix by just a 46-43 margin and got to only 13 offensive caroms. The Suns actually won the rebounding battle in the second half 26-20, believe it or not.
Robin Lopez was a big part of that with something of a career game, on the glass at least. Lopez scored 18 points and grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds in 32 minutes of work and he at least made Gasol shoot jump shots over him instead of easy shots at the rim.
Lopez had underwhelmed in Phoenix’s first two games, but tonight he provided the kind of presence the Suns will require from him if they are going to be a good team. He snatched both more offensive and defensive rebounds (seven each) than any teammate recorded total rebounds.
“I’ve just been trying to get to the glass,” Lopez said. “I’ve got to take the best rebounder on the team, and last year I had to stay on him, make sure he didn’t get the board. This year I have to hit him and then pursue the ball as well.”
Hill paced the Suns offensively, looking like the guy who starred for the Detroit Pistons in the mid-90s. He was so hot the Suns even called some isos for him, and he stroked mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper just like the Grant Hill of old.
His team-high 21-point performance on 10-for-17 shooting would be impressive on any night, but even more so on a back-to-back while having to defend a guy by the name of Kobe on the other end. Not bad for a 38-year-old.
“I was just trying to be aggressive,” Hill said. “I wasn’t super aggressive the last few games. Opportunities were there.”
The Suns also got a superlative effort out of Goran Dragic, whose sore right knee didn’t really bother him in this one as he racked up 15 points and four assists in 19 minutes. Jared Dudley chipped in 10 points in that same period of time.
“I feel great,” Dragic said. “I feel like last season my confidence is up. I’m feeling like free on the court and I can do whatever I want.”
After three games, the Phoenix Suns’ record sits at one win and two losses. Such a mark would be discouraging for most conference finalists, but not this one.
Phoenix has played well for the majority of all three games and appears to be starting to figure it out. Rebounding appears to be a season-long issue, but if Lopez boards like he did tonight the Suns should be able to hang with most squads on the glass.
Most impressively the Suns have gotten different contributions from so many different players. Nash and J-Rich carried the day in Portland, Warrick was the man in Utah and tonight Lopez and Hill came up big.
Any time a team must play at Portland and Utah and then face the Lakers at home on a back-to-back, they won’t do much better than 1-2. And considering the way the Suns are still learning to play with each other, this has been quite the impressive 1-2 week.
“I’m just encouraged by this week,” Hill said. “About a week ago we had just got our butts whupped in the preseason against Denver. I know it was a preseason game, but we hadn’t really found our way, we hadn’t really played with a lot of spirit and we’re starting to do that.”
Dragic on the bench: “I think every game is better and better. Today we had really a good quarter and yesterday in Utah. Still we have to improve some things, but we’re getting there. If we’re going to compete and do our thing, I think we’re going to be a great second unit.” …
Dragic also said that his knee is “just a little bit sore, but much better today than yesterday.” …
Hill’s 21 points marked his highest-scoring game since March 6 of last season. He averaged 9.5 points on 44.4 percent shooting on the second half of back-to-backs last year. … The Lakers are 8-2 against the Suns in the regular season since the Pau Gasol trade. … The Suns last lost a regular season home game 231 days ago, back on March 12. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the Lakers were the visitors that night as well. Phoenix then reeled off eight straight home wins to end the year. … The Suns dropped to 31-12 all-time in home openers. … Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald attended the game.