Phoenix Suns 123, Houston Rockets 116 -- What a difference Nash makes

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Steve Nash's return sparked the Suns to a road trip-salvaging win in Houston. (AP Photo/Bob Levey)

Steve Nash's return sparked the Suns to a road trip-salvaging win in Houston. (AP Photo/Bob Levey)

Steve Nash won his first MVP award in large part because of how bad an otherwise spectacular Suns team was in his absence during the 2004-05 season.

Although I doubt Nash will ever be known as “Three Time,” the contrast between Saturday’s ugly loss in Charlotte and tonight’s pretty (offensively at least) 123-116 win over Houston proves once again just what Nash means to this basketball team.

Aside from preventing the horrors of more time for Jared Dudley at the point, Nash sparked the Suns from start to finish by carving up the Rockets for 24 points and nine assists while putting up a +13 in his 37 minutes of work.

Nash’s best stretch came when he re-entered the game with 5:16 left in the first half and the Suns up two and willed an 18-4 Phoenix run in which he assisted on four Suns field goals. Off the strength of that run, Phoenix went into the break with a 14-point halftime lead.

Later on his beautiful feed at the rim to Jason Richardson for an easy two as the shot clock expired that put Phoenix up eight with 37 seconds left finished off his masterpiece.

“He is the engine that drives the car,” Gentry said of Nash. “He comes out and makes the plays and knocks down the big shots.”

While we have known that for years, after watching the Suns play two games without Nash and one game with a gimpy No. 13 who wasn’t himself, it’s startling to watch how different Phoenix’s offense is with MVSteve. With Nash, you always feel like the Suns can get a good shot, whereas they went cold for long stretches against Orlando and Charlotte when they just couldn’t get the kind of attempts that Nash gets them.

If last week was a glimpse of what the post-Nash era will look like, Suns fans better be sure to enjoy what Nash means to this offense for as long as he’s in Phoenix.

But it wasn’t just Nash. All of the starters scored at least 15 points, led by Jason Richardson’s 26 (12 in the fourth), and Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress chipped in with 10-point efforts that gave the Suns seven guys in double figures. Phoenix as a team shot 53.8 percent.

Defensively, they were the same old Suns, particularly during Houston’s 71-point second half that was just barely held off by Phoenix’s 64-point half.

The Rockets missed all 12 of their threes and shot 40 percent in the first half, but they wound up shooting 49 percent for the game and knocked down 6-of-14 threes in the second half.

Houston also (surprise, surprise!) decimated the Suns on the glass, racking up 18 offensive boards on its way to a 51-33 rebounding advantage. Former Wildcat Jordan Hill grabbed 10 off the bench to go with 14 points as the front line of Hill, Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes and Brad Miller pulled down as many rebounds as the Suns did as a team. They helped the Rockets score 24 second-chance points and 62 points in the paint.

“Wins are hard to come by. Any win on the road is a great win,” Gentry said. “Our offensive rebounding and second-chance points have been our downfall. We’re happy with the win and we will build from it. Our offense won the game for us. We need to get our defense to make the necessary stops for us to win down the stretch.”

The Suns’ offense is good enough that they will be able to outscore struggling defensive teams, but that’s not much of a blueprint for success in the NBA, particularly against teams that do defend as we saw earlier in the trip.

But that offense is good enough that Lon Babby and Lance Blanks should be doing everything possible to bring another rebounder (oops, shouldn’t say another because that presumes somebody on this team rebounds in the first place) to town and hope Robin Lopez recovers from his knee injury and develops into a force on the boards.

It’s a testament to how good this offense can be that the Suns could get outrebounded by 18 and give up 71 points in the second half on the road yet still pull out a victory.

As the Suns were trying to blow what had started out as a 15-point fourth quarter lead, Hedo Turkoglu hit the biggest shot of the night, as he has done in Phoenix’s last three victories. A Kevin Martin three-pointer had just cut the lead to three when Richardson missed a jumper with just over 2:30 left.

But Grant Hill, who played a superb game in accruing a 17-7-7, tipped the rebound out to a waiting Turkoglu, who drilled a three-pointer to stretch the lead to six. The Suns never were seriously threatened again as they knocked down all their free throws down the stretch.

“It’s always great to finish a road trip with a win,” Turkoglu said. “We didn’t start the trip well. This was a good win.”

Although the Rockets are struggling at 3-10 and were without their point guard (Aaron Brooks) and center (Yao), this qualifies as a good win in my book. I expected Houston to be a playoff team when the season started, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they storm back to fight for one of the final playoff spots with the Suns. In April this win will shine much brighter than it does tonight.

For the Suns, as Grant Hill was saying on the postgame show, it was important just to feel what winning was like again after barely competing in their last three ballgames. Finishing this road trip 1-3 really isn’t so bad when you consider the Nash and Lopez injuries and the fact they were probably going to lose both in Florida regardless and the Bobcats always play them tough in Charlotte.

I’ve been writing almost every game about how the Suns must prevent themselves from getting buried by their brutal early schedule, and as the schedule eases up at least a touch they have done that, winning in Utah, Atlanta, Los Angeles and now Houston while weathering injuries to Lopez and Nash and figuring out how the pieces fit.

The Suns must improve greatly defensively and on the boards to become a legitimate playoff threat, but their offense has proven to be good enough these first 14 games to keep the Suns afloat with a .500 record.

And 1

Nash decided to suit up about an hour before the game after missing the past two games with a groin injury. “Not too bad,” he said of the groin. “My reoccurring injury was OK, but I bruised my heel in the first quarter and I was limping a bit from that. I’ve been working real hard to come back and I had it in my mind to play and I was ready. My soreness was down.” … Nash surpassed the 15,000-point and 8,500-assist plateaus for his career in this contest. … Phoenix went 7-of-13 from three (53.8 percent) to end its drought from long range, meaning the Suns shot the same percentage from three as they did overall.

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