Phoenix Suns 92, Milwaukee Bucks 77 -- Defensive juggernaut?

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PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns better be careful. If they keep playing defense like this they may soon lose their reputation as an all offense, no defense basketball team.

As has often been the case during the Suns’ current stretch of eight wins in 11 games, defense carried the day in their 92-77 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, particularly during a first half in which the Suns held the Bucks to an opponent season-low 31 points on 24.4 percent shooting.

Yesterday I wrote about how the Suns’ 70.9 defensive rating and 34.2 percent opponent shooting percentage Friday night against the Celtics made that contest their best defensive performance of the Nash Era, but they were even better during a first half in which Phoenix ran up a 52-31 lead. For the game the team’s defensive efficiency of 86.5 was bettered only by the Boston game even after the Bucks scored six points in the final minute with the game long decided, and Phoenix held Milwaukee to an opponent season-low effective field goal percentage of 33.9 percent.

“I think, defensively, we’re getting better,” head coach Alvin Gentry said. “The last 10 games we have given up less than 45 percent shooting; that puts us in the top 10 (of the league in this time) and I thought we started out the game really focused and doing what we needed to do.”

When the Suns ranked at the bottom of the league in defensive field-goal percentage not too long ago, Gentry installed boards in the locker room displaying the team’s defensive field-goal percentage for the season and in the last 10 games.

Due to their porous early season defense, the Suns still entered the night 27th in the league in this category, but they have steadily moved up after holding an opponent below 43.4 percent for the sixth time in eight games. Overall the Suns have held their last eight opponents to 41.4 percent shooting, much better than their overall 47.2 percent, and that’s even with two of those eight opponents shooting better than 50 percent.

Those numbers certainly improved after the Suns held Milwaukee to 31.1 percent shooting, the lowest by a Suns opponent since limiting Denver to a franchise-low 26.3 percent shooting day on April 1, 2003, another date before the start of the Nash Era. The Suns have set a new season low for opponent field-goal percentage five times since Dec. 31 (17 games).

“We’ve taken a step,” Grant Hill said.

The one caveat in this one is that the Bucks were missing star center Andrew Bogut with a knee injury, John Salmons was gimpy and Brandon Jennings is still working his way back from an injury of his own. Even at full strength the Bucks rank only ahead of those poor, poor LeBron James-less Cleveland Cavaliers, shooting 42.7 percent entering the game, so it’s not exactly like this came against the ’92 Dream Team.

“They’re undermanned,” Jared Dudley said. “I thought that we did a good job of not playing down, coming out, setting the tone. Steve, Grant, everyone pushing the tempo, but defensively we got stops. It was kind of, I’m not going to say it was easy, but in the sense of they didn’t have Bogut there, they were trying to stretch and find and we did a good job with that.”

Without Bogut the Suns for once enjoyed a decisive edge inside, and they took advantage of that by pasting the Bucks on the boards, 54-39. Channing Frye ripped down 13 boards, his second best performance of the year, and the double-double man Marcin Gortat corralled another 11.

The Bucks had no answer for Gortat during his 12-point, six-board first half on 5-for-7 shooting, as he overwhelmed them with sheer physicality.

Afterward the Polish center said he would prefer to play against a prototypical big man because it was “really uncomfortable” going up against undersized bigs like Ersan Ilyasova and Jon Brockman due to their lower leverage and boundless energy.

Gortat still had no problem going for at least 19 points for the third straight game, noteworthy because his career high entering this stretch was 16. He’s scored in double figures in four straight for the first time in his career.

“My confidence is pretty big right now,” said Gortat, who was still disappointed in himself for failing to convert a handful of plays. “I have a lot of fun from playing basketball, my mind is really free right now, comparing to the ex-team. It’s just fun. Playing with Steve Nash, he’s going to always find you. I would say he’s 50 percent, at least 50 percent of the success for me. You’ve just got to catch the ball, finish hard and make sure that your teammates are going to be happy.”

Hill (16), Dudley (15) and Frye (14) joined Gortat in double figures while Nash dished 13 assists (the same number as the Bucks as a team) and the Suns shot 50 percent from the field, so the only negatives came in the form of some sloppy second half play when the Suns enjoyed a seemingly insurmountable lead.

Nash committed five of Phoenix’s seven turnovers in the third and then Zabian Dowdell gave away two more in the fourth as the Suns allowed a 25-point lead to creep down to nine with 8:32 remaining.

But Alvin Gentry disgustedly called a timeout and brought back Nash, Hill and Frye to close out the deal.

It’s unfortunate the Suns failed to blow this one wide open when the game appeared to be over early in the third, but at least they didn’t allow the Bucks to come all the way back as they did last year in Phoenix in a game they led by 24 before ultimately closing it out. Such dispassionate play is often par for the course in the NBA when a big lead is rolled up.

The Suns have now won three straight and eight of 11 to vault just two games back of Portland for the eighth and final West playoff spot, including one game back in the loss column.

Most importantly, the Suns’ defense that was so maligned when the Orlando acquisitions first put on the purple and orange has started to transform into a very effective unit.

“It didn’t look good, but I believe we are way, way, way better team than a month ago, and now we’ve just got to stay like that and just keep playing hard,” Gortat said. “We made a lot of adjustments, everybody is playing way better, everybody has his own role in the team and everybody knows what they’re supposed to do.”

And 1

The Suns beat the Bucks in Phoenix for the 23rd straight time, dating back to Feb. 21, 1987. That’s the second-longest active home winning streak behind only San Antonio’s 25-game run over Golden State and one shy of the Suns’ franchise record (24 straight over Sacramento from 1988-98). “That’s a crazy stat,” Dudley said. … The Suns are 18-0 against the Bucks in US Airways Center, making them the only franchise without a win in the building. … Phoenix held its fourth opponent under 80 points, the most since 2004-05. The team also improved to 64-1 all-time when holding an opponent under 80 points, but that one was on the last road trip in Detroit. … The Suns are within one game of .500 for the second time since Dec. 20, the last game before the Orlando acquisitions arrived. … The Bucks made just 4-for-20 shots in the second quarter, as the Suns outscored them 27-14. … Dudley on the win: “It’s a team we should beat, we’re at home, we don’t want to slip up because we’ve already had too many slip-ups throughout the year.”

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