Phoenix Suns 115, Portland Trail Blazers 111 -- One game back

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PHOENIX — All the talk of rock bottom and blowing this thing up is missing one key fact. After Friday’s 115-111 victory over Portland, the Suns trail the Blazers by a mere one game in the loss column and two games overall for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Despite winning consecutive games for only the first time since early December following a stretch in which they lost to the Clippers, 76ers and Kings and got blown out by the Knicks and Nuggets, the Suns are right back in the thick of things.

“I think we knew the significance of the game,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “This is just a much, much needed win for us.”

Unlike in previous seasons, the Western Conference really only features seven upper-echelon teams, and the Nuggets may be falling from those ranks any second now if they do deal Carmelo. Any other year and the Suns would be buried barring something like a 10-game win streak, but with Memphis, Houston and this Portland team failing to gain any separation, the race for No. 8 is wide open.

That’s why the Suns have remained right in the middle of this pack despite winning their first game against a non-losing team (Portland is now .500 after dropping three in a row) since the Orlando acquisitions arrived in Phoenix.

However, it doesn’t matter how close the Suns are to a playoff berth if they don’t start playing better than they have the past few weeks, and Friday’s victory marked improvement on that front as well.

Playing against a Portland squad that had smothered them in their three previous meetings, the Suns dictated tempo in this one, which rarely happens when these teams get together. The Suns not only reached the century mark for the first time in their last five regular-season contests against Portland, but only the Lakers — who put up 121 on Nov. 7 — have scored more against the Blazers all season.

“We struggle with this team as much as anyone because I think they do the best job of dictating tempo,” said Gentry, whose team pushed the ball faster than it normally does to create that quicker pace. “They really try to get a rhythm and play, and tonight I thought we kept forcing the issue and got the tempo up where we needed it to be, and it was a good win for us.”

The bench in particular played with energy reminiscent of last year’s bench to start the fourth quarter as the Suns ensured this game would be played in the 110s where they are most comfortable rather than the 90s, which Portland prefers. The Suns have now hit the century mark in three of four (and almost did in their Denver loss) after failing to do so in four straight.

“We have to be who we are, and our identity’s scoring,” Jared Dudley said.

After a porous defensive first quarter in which Portland scored 36 points on 62.5 percent shooting, the Suns stiffened up in that realm as well, particularly in a fourth quarter that saw the Blazers knock down just 38.9 percent of their shots and 1-of-7 threes as the Suns bottled up LaMarcus Aldridge with hard double teams.

The Suns once again overcame a double-digit deficit, winning their second straight such home game and sixth of the year, and once again it started with Dudley. Just as Dudley ended a 10-0 Nets run to begin the second half on Wednesday with a four-point play, he started a 9-0 Suns run with another four-point play after Portland took an 11-point lead midway through the second quarter.

Both times when Dudley’s long ball splashed through the net as he lay sprawled on the floor, the crowd went wild and really seemed to give the Suns a huge boost.

Afterward Dudley had some fun with it by admitting he might not have exactly deserved the extra free throw from the foul.

“I used to do that in college, kicking my leg out,” he said. “The first one against Philly, that was a foul, but today I stuck my leg out against Andre Miller because he came a little late, but hopefully I can keep it going.

“I’m admitting to the kick of the leg a la Reggie Miller.”

Like two of the three of the previous losses to the Blazers, this one also was close entering the fourth quarter. You might remember that the Suns melted down twice in the Rose Garden, but this time they were the better team in the fourth as Steve Nash drilled a tie-breaking triple with 1:11 remaining to take the lead for good to cap an overall solid period for Phoenix.

It’s too early to say whether the Suns are finally starting to figure things out or whether they just sandwiched two wins against poor teams and one against a .500 team at home around one of their worst efforts of the decade. However, this was the kind of game against a solid Portland team the Suns would have lost a week or two ago.

The Suns pushed the tempo against a squad that usually grinds them to a pulp and they stifled the Blazers’ offense down the stretch with some aggressive double teams, positive signs for a team still finding itself.

“I think it’s big. I think it’s a start,” Dudley said. “We can build off this.  That’s a good Portland team that’s beat us pretty well.”

One solid win won’t wipe away all the issues we’ve been discussing about this team the last two weeks, but tonight’s effort provides hope that the Suns aren’t as far away from being a playoff team as was thought earlier this week.

And 1

Grant Hill returned from his minor knee sprain to score 21 points on 9-for-14 shooting, a performance that made him the 15th active player in the NBA to reach 16,000 career points. “Sometimes I get depressed because I think back that I could have more, but I’ll take the 16,” Hill said of the achievement. … Steve Nash missed two of his seven free throw attempts to fall back into second place behind Mark Price on the NBA’s all-time free throw list. Nash, who had drilled 48 consecutive freebies entering the night, needs to hit 12 in a row to surpass Price once again. … Nash went for a 23-6-13 evening, making this the third straight home game in which he has gone for at least 20 points, 10 assists and six boards. … Dudley has reached double figures in five of six.

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