Phoenix Suns 95, Utah Jazz 83 -- Second half stinginess

Robin Lopez and the Suns' defense buckled down on Paul Millsap and the Utah Jazz in the second half. (AP Photo/Jim Urquhart)

Robin Lopez and the Suns' defense buckled down on Paul Millsap and the Utah Jazz in the second half. (AP Photo/Jim Urquhart)

The Phoenix Suns played a terrible first half and shot just 40 percent from the field and half as well on threes on the second game of a back-to-back against an emotional Utah team playing without Jerry Sloan as their head coach for the first time since the late ’80s.

That certainly would have been the recipe for a defeat a couple weeks ago, but none of that could derail the Phoenix Suns express Friday night in Salt Lake City as the Suns used a stifling second-half defensive effort to beat the Jazz going away, 95-83.

The Suns trailed 56-44 at the break after a first half in which Utah got off to a quick 13-2 lead, but they kept plugging away until the tide turned in a big way in the second half.

“We just said, ‘Stick with it,'” Steve Nash told ESPN in his walkoff interview. “We played so poorly in the first half we were lucky to be down 12. We came out feeling like we had a second life. We went on a little run to start, and that was kind of it.”

That was all thanks to a scintillating second-half defensive effort that would impress the Boston Celtics. The Suns held the Jazz to 27 points on 32.4 percent shooting from the field and 2-for-10 shooting from deep, and that was only after C.J. Miles and Deron Williams hit garbage threes in the final 33 seconds.

That means in the first 23:27 of the half before the game had been decided the Jazz scored just 21 points on less than 30 percent shooting without drilling a three. They rebounded just three of those missed buckets as the Suns outboarded them 29-15 in the half with four players with five boards and a fifth with four. According to Elias, no team in the shot clock era has scored fewer second-half points in a head coach’s debut.

The Suns, meanwhile, played a typical Phoenix offensive half by scoring 51 on 48.8 percent shooting, although they still struggled behind the arc, hitting 3-of-14 in the half. Their defense allowed them to overcome a 3:37 drought near the beginning of the fourth with the bench unit in as both teams traded misses before Nash and Hill returned to restore order.

“We just got off to a horrendous start,” head coach Alvin Gentry told reporters. “Couldn’t make a shot, gave up too many transition baskets to them early in the game. We knew that there would be a reaction, an emotional reaction to the whole Jerry (Sloan) thing. And we told our guys we were just going to have to weather that and then lock in, and the last 36 minutes of the game is going to be played like the game is going to be played.”

Added Jazz head coach Tryone Corbin (sounds weird, right?), “We ran out of gas. I mean, I don’t know if it was emotions in the first half, when we showed up for the game, but the second half, we just got away from everything we were doing.”

It really says something about the changing identity of the Suns that they could win a game in a (formerly?) hostile environment on the second game of a back-to-back on a night their shots weren’t falling against such an emotional team.

Sure, it helped quite a bit that Andrei Kirilenko missed the second half with a twisted ankle, Raja Bell was out with a strained left calf and Ronnie Price couldn’t go because of a sprained toe. Those injuries certainly depleted Utah’s bench and made some kind of an impact on the anemic second half.

Still, the Suns’ simplified defense has become a weapon during the Suns’ stretch of winning six of seven and 11 of 15 to move a game over .500 for the first time since Dec. 7. Marcin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus in particular played fantastic man defense as the Jazz never could get anything going in the second half.

It was also good to see Gentry stick with his hot players rather than go with a set rotation.

The bench played together until the four-minute mark of the second quarter as a reward for going on a spurt. In the fourth quarter, Pietrus and Hakim Warrick joined Gortat in playing the entirety of the period as only Nash and Hill were brought back halfway through. Pietrus played solid defense on Williams while Warrick put up a real nice 8-4-2 stat line in the fourth quarter alone.

Channing Frye (2-for-11, 1-for-7 on threes) and Jared Dudley (1-for-7, 0-for-3) just didn’t have their shooting eye tonight, so Gentry went with the hot hands instead. He also played Lopez a full 10:16 in the third as he enjoyed perhaps his best stretch of the season in putting up 11 points and grabbing five boards (four offensive).

The Jazz didn’t have an answer for his activity, and if he played like that every night this Suns team would be really dangerous. Lopez was just much more aggressive than normal and seemed to be playing with lots of confidence, and that made a big difference.

The win allows the Suns to keep pace with Portland, who beat the Raptors tonight. Phoenix trails the Blazers by two games but just one in the loss column, and the squad is one back of Memphis but up one in the loss column.

The Suns’ recent winning ways more interestingly bring them closer to the rest of the West pack. They now trail the Jazz, who have lost 11 of 15 and four in a row at home, by just three games and one in the loss column. If the Suns beat the Kings on Sunday and then Utah again on Tuesday in US Airways Center, they would be even in the loss column and 1 1/2 back of the Jazz overall, and with their second win of the season in Utah tonight they clinched the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Jazz.

Looking further up the standings, No. 6 Denver is just two games up on the Suns in the loss column and could be making a franchise-altering deal any second now and even No. 5 New Orleans three up in the loss column isn’t beyond being caught.

For some time now the West playoff picture looked like a top heavy top seven and then Portland, Memphis and the Suns battling for No. 8. But at this point the final three or so spots may be up for grabs for all those teams in the mix.

The Suns have put themselves in that discussion with their 11-4 run, but most importantly they have finally gelled with their Orlando acquisitions and seem like they could be poised to make another second-half run.

The offense will always be there, but if the Suns can continue to play the kind of defense they did in the second half tonight they will be a threat in the Western Conference down the stretch.

And 1

Beckley Mason over at HoopSpeak wrote an interesting feature on the jump pass, and that discussion includes a look at Nash’s propensity to execute this risky maneuver. … The Suns committed just six turnovers in this ballgame. … Warrick and Pietrus were both a team-high plus 15 in 22 minutes of action. … After trailing by 15 in the second quarter, the Suns came all the way back to take a 15-point lead of their own in the waning moments of the contest.

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