PHOENIX — Wednesday night’s game showed all the signs early on of a classic slumpbuster for the Suns.
And then it didn’t. Then it did again.
How it got categorized after the final buzzer ultimately didn’t matter, as the Suns were looking for any kind of win, and they got it, 128-122 over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Coming off a four-day layoff (and a three-game losing streak), the Suns came out with a ton of energy early in the game and kept it up for most of the contest. After last Friday’s loss to Portland, a number of players spoke of a missing energy and spirit.
Particularly aggressive and energetic was guard Jason Richardson, who has struggled lately.
Richardson came out like a man possessed, scoring 15 points in the first quarter. Richardson had combined for just 18 over the Suns’ last three games — a total he surpassed by halftime (24) on the way to a game-high 29 points.
“We got that [energy] back tonight,” Richardson said. “That’s the type of team we are. If we’re not up with a lot of energy, smiling, high fiving, helping each other out, we’re not good. When we have that energy, we’re at our best.”
Suns point guard Steve Nash also lamented last week that the Suns had lost their energy and also came out with fire in his eyes Wednesday. Nash, however, was able to get back to his role as a creator for the team, as he finished with 19 assists, including 11 in the first half.
“We were definitely better in stretches tonight,” Nash said. “We’ve also got a lot to work on still so we’ll take the win, we’ll take the positives and we’ll try to work on the negatives.”
Nash’s ability to step out of the forefront in terms of scoring was a clear key to the Suns relaxed, fluid play against Minnesota and it was evident from the start that the team’s confidence is great when Nash is directing the show instead of being the show.
With so many storylines to attribute the win to, the angle most discussed beforehand was buried. Center Robin Lopez returned to the starting lineup from injury and quietly played one of his better games this season. Lopez played 23 minutes, contributing 12 points and eight rebounds.
“I felt like I was a lot more capable of doing a lot more things out there,” Lopez said. “It’s that simple.”
Lopez’s return also marked the Suns sixth unique starting lineup this season, as center Channing Frye started as well. Frye made a case for keeping the lineup intact with a team-high nine rebounds, but impressed most late in the game.
Up 91-86 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Suns came out slow in what may have been their only energy slump of the game. Minnesota took advantage, going on a 16-4 run to overtake Phoenix 102-95 with 8:21 to play.
But, as if a switch were flipped, the Suns turned it back on and went on a tear of their own. Less than four minutes later, the Suns were back up 1114-106 following a 19-4 run that included five three-pointers.
Frye hit three of those deep balls and finished with 21 points (12 in the fourth quarter) and Jared Dudley hit two on his way to 11 points.
“We just needed a win,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said after the game. “It’s just a much-needed win and we have got to take that and try to build from that.”
Gentry also praised the Suns’ rebounding efforts, which may have quietly been the most telling statistic in the game. The Suns, the NBA’s worst rebounding team, outrebounded Minnesota, the league’s best rebounding team, 46-39.
Timberwolves forward Kevin Love led Minnesota with 23 points and a game-high 16 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to aid the team’s late surge. After the Suns’ big run, the T-Wolves tried to chip away at the lead and got within four but couldn’t do enough to avoid extending their eight-game road losing streak to nine.
The return of Lopez bodes well for the Suns, regardless of if he is able to keep playing as well as he did (or better?) Wednesday. Opponents are once again forced to key on the Suns’ post presence, which obviously frees up perimeter shooters. Moreover, the Lopez-Frye combo will likely prove to be a pairing that creates more opportunities for the Suns both in and out of the paint.
“I’m really excited to continue to play with Robin,” Frye said. “It’s kind of easier to get up and pressure a little more when you got ‘Big Fella’ back there.”
The win was certainly an important one for the Suns, but also wasn’t a certain indicator of a change. The Timberwolves have only won six games this season and the Suns had extended time off.
The real test of stamina and identity begins Friday in Dallas as the Suns begin a tough three-game stretch that includes the Mavericks, Thunder and Spurs before the team returns to US Airways Center on Dec. 23 to play the red-hot Miami Heat.
“All three of those games are going to be hard for us; they are all playing well,” Richardson said. “We’ve just got to go out there and continue to play the way we play.”
The Suns might have made the game a little easier had it not been for their 16 turnovers. Minnesota capitalized by scoring 22 points off them. … The win was the Suns’ sixth straight against the Timberwolves, who haven’t beat the Suns since Jan. 16, 2009.