PHOENIX — For three quarters the Phoenix Suns appeared to be sleepwalking through tonight’s matchup against Memphis, seemingly exhausted after playing last night in Portland with an off kilter shooting eye that seemed to be contagious.
Trailing by 14 heading into the fourth, head coach Alvin Gentry had no choice but to unleash his much-maligned bench, and as the unit did so many times last season it almost won him the game.
That unit smothered Memphis to the extent the Grizz scored just 14 points on 30 percent shooting, and if not for a Rudy Gay game-tying three at the buzzer, that bench mob would have been the story on a night Memphis hung on for a 104-98 overtime victory.
Amid the rubble of a disappointing loss to a squad that had dropped six straight away from Tennessee, Gentry saw the potential of a unit that could turn around the season for the .500 Suns.
“I’m convinced that we’re going to be a really good team, but we’re searching, we’re searching right now,” Gentry said. “We’re in every game that we play. This is not an easy thing, we’ve got guys trying to adjust to different positions and things, and I know it sounds like a broken record, but it will all come together.
“If we keep working like that, like we played tonight, play with that kind of effort I’m convinced that we’ll be a good team.”
On a night like this, it would be easy to paint Gentry as an over-optimistic captain staying positive for the sake of his crew.
Through three quarters the Suns trailed by 14 to a losing team and had scored just 64 points on 38.7 percent shooting while yielding 53.3 percent shooting and a 28-14 first 36 minutes to Zach Randolph alone (he finished with a 34-17 on 15-for-19 shooting).
Jason Richardson missed 10 of his 11 shots, and during a brutal stretch at the end of the first half when Memphis reeled off a 12-1 run to go into the break up 12 the Suns missed a flurry of open shots they typically hit while going the final 5:26 without a field goal.
For the game they still missed 23 of their 30 three-pointers (hitting 23.3 percent) and 10 of 27 free throws (for a 63.0 percent clip), none more critical than Channing Frye’s miss with 3.3 seconds left that opened the door for Rudy Gay to tie things.
Randolph set a screen on Josh Childress to free Gay up, and he got a good look when Grant Hill didn’t switch. Gentry later lamented that nobody was close enough to foul Gay to prevent him from even getting the shot up as the Suns had done to Mike Conley on the previous possession.
“They were sensational and, just still kind of a shock of what happened, but Gay got open and hit a tough shot and sent it to overtime,” Hill said.
Added Hakim Warrick: “For them to come right back and hit it, tough.”
Just like the Suns did after miraculously sending it to overtime against the Grizzlies on Nov. 5 on Hill’s lob to Richardson at the buzzer, Memphis held on in overtime with Randolph sealing it with a bucket to extend the lead to four with 8.7 seconds left after Memphis previously secured an offensive rebound on that crucial possession.
If Gay misses that shot, Gentry noted that we would all be talking about the positives that came from this one and how the Suns made an incredible comeback; instead it feels like the Suns were the team to blow this one despite trailing most of the contest.
Phoenix was in position to win this one thanks to a bench unit featuring Goran Dragic, Josh Childress, Jared Dudley, Hedo Turkoglu and Hakim Warrick. The unit played smothering defense in the fourth quarter, holding the Grizz to two points in almost six minutes as they executed their comeback. According to Gentry, the Suns have never played better defense this season.
“I think that’s what we have to do,” Gentry said of the bench defense. “We fought back and had every opportunity to win the game.”
The bench recorded its third 50-point game of the season and saw three reserves reach double figures for the just the second time all year on a back-to-back night in which the starters just didn’t have much juice after playing heavy minutes last night in Portland. In all the bench outscored the starters 58-40 and had more rebounds, steals and blocks and just as many assists.
“Finally, right?” Dragic said of the bench’s big night. “We were just aggressive in defense. Everybody was in the right spot and we’re rotating great, and after that we went in transition and scored some easy baskets. Every game if we would play like that it would be much easier for us.”
After going scoreless in nine minutes last night, Dragic tossed up a 17-3-5 line in a team-high 35 minutes of action. Dragic entered for Nash earlier than usual — at the 4:14 mark of the first quarter — and he came in for Richardson four and a half minutes into the second half to run the two next to Nash; he didn’t exit the rest of the game.
“Definitely (this was big) to get my confidence up,” said Dragic, who added he did not tire playing that many minutes. “I was struggling a little bit with all the games, and right now I’m really happy that I come back. It means a lot to me.”
Had it not been for that Gay shot, Hedo Turkoglu would have gone down as the hero of the game. After joining his teammates in going through the motions during the first three quarters, Turkoglu dominated the fourth quarter offensively, hitting every big shot on his way to a 10-point quarter on 4-for-6 shooting while cleaning up the defensive backboards with four key rebounds that helped the Suns end possessions and keep the Grizz in check defensively.
Turk splashed a trey with 2:48 remaining to cap a 18-4 that tied the game and later swished a three-pointer over Randolph to put Phoenix ahead 91-88 with 6.2 to play.
But alas, Gay was not to be outdone, and the Suns were sent quivering back to .500 following their second straight loss to a struggling basketball team.
This Suns team clearly has lots to figure out still, and I do not envy Gentry’s job trying to find the most effective rotation possible. It also seems like he’s throwing lineups out there seeing what will stick, and a quarter into the season you would like to have more of a plan.
However, even in defeat tonight was a step in the right direction. The starters will get their energy back, and if the bench can deliver this kind of performance on a more consistent basis with Turkoglu taking charge offensively and Dragic blowing by slower backup point guards while the defense stiffens up, even after a crushing defeat it’s not difficult to see why Gentry remains upbeat.