PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns’ bench played such a stellar second quarter that it rivaled any of their efforts from a year ago.
After Atlanta opened the quarter with a bucket to tie the game, they decimated a shorthanded Hawks lineup heavy on starters by ballooning the lead up to 18 points at its peak as Alvin Gentry kept the lineup together all quarter save for the final three minutes of Nash.
Yet the Suns almost blew their eventual 105-97 victory when those same reserves yielded a 12-3 Atlanta run to make this a three-point game when Nash and Channing Frye were forced to come back early with 8:14 remaining in the game.
“I thought that group did a great job in the second quarter for us,” Gentry said. “I thought for the most part those guys did a good job for us and actually got us the lead. In the fourth quarter we didn’t execute, and that’s the Jekyll and Hyde part of what our second unit’s been this season. We’ve just got to get more consistency out of them. We have to feel like that’s what we’re going to get every time out, and so far we haven’t gotten that.”
Added Hakim Warrick, “As good as were in the second quarter we just didn’t bring it in the second half.”
Gentry nailed it by calling this bench a Jeykyll and Hyde unit, and it’s rare for a game to provide such a stark contrast.
Marcin Gortat nearly had a double-double by halftime (nine points and 10 boards), and Mickael Pietrus, Jared Dudley and Hakim Warrick combined for 26 for a Suns second unit that outscored their Atlanta counterparts 50-28 with Atlanta going shorthanded after completing a trade for Kirk Hinrich just before the game.
Most importantly they shut down an Atlanta offense that scored 31 on 56.0 percent shooting in the first to the tune of 16 points on 29.4 percent marksmanship in the second, and their 15-3 run midway through the quarter put the Suns in control of the contest. Save for Warrick’s presence at the power forward spot, this is a defense-first lineup that should be proficient at that end on a more consistent basis.
But then the fourth quarter started, and the Hawks played a zone that flummoxed the Suns. They scored on some atypical plays (a Dudley dunk and a Warrick three?!?) but could not muster any consistent offense while their defense got burned on the other end.
“They played great in the first half, in the second half they were just totally disconnected,” Nash said. “But what they did in the second quarter was really important to our victory. It gave us some breathing room, and we were able to overcome a lapse there at the start of the fourth quarter.”
Much like in their 118-114 victory in Atlanta earlier this season, the Suns let the Hawks tie the game but not get any closer.
When a Joe Johnson triple knotted the score at 92, Nash immediately led an 8-0 predicated heavily on taking advantage of mismatches down low to finish the Hawks off.
“It was a great win against a real quality team,” Gentry said. “I thought that we just went through that little stretch there where we didn’t execute. … But I think we bailed ourselves out.”
With superstars falling from fellow contenders for the last spots in the Western Conference left and right, the Suns know their path to a playoff berth looks better than it did a week ago.
But only if the Suns continue to take care of business against a brutal schedule heavy on road games and quality teams.
Gentry’s latest motivational ploy involves telling his squad it’s like a college basketball team fighting its way into the NCAA Tournament. There’s no conference tournament, they need to win enough games to garner an at-large bid.
“We are not trying to be the play-in game,” Gentry added. “We want to be anywhere from a five seed and up, which means we’ve got to have a good record the last 27 games. We’ve got to play our way in.”
With the win the Suns moved within two games of No. 8 Memphis and into a tie in the loss column with the Grizzlies and Jazz.
But continuing the college analogy, the Suns aren’t watching what the other bubble teams are doing as they feel that will take care of itself if they just continue to win.
“We’re still at a point where we can control our own destiny,” Warrick said. “We don’t have to hope this team loses, just take care of ourselves and get as many wins as we can.”
The Suns managed to survive this one despite a very lopsided performance from the bench, but if that unit can provide more level contributions on a nightly basis the Suns may yet get a taste of April Madness.
- Nash was asked for the final time about a trade before Thursday’s trade deadline. “I haven’t thought about it, but obviously anything is possible,” Nash said. Nash won’t be the next superstar traveling east, at least not this season. Paul Coro tweeted that it’s very doubtful the Suns make any move, and if something were to happen I would assume it would be a small move involving a wing.
- Coro also reported that Fox Sports Arizona will be the exclusive home of the Suns starting next season, with the network slated to broadcast about 75 games next season after splitting coverage duties with My45 the past several years. Fans in Tucson must be rejoicing because now they will be able to watch every Suns game.
- Steve Nash passed Eddie Jones on the all-time three-pointers made list with his first long ball tonight, moving into 10th place with 1,546. … Marcin Gortat’s ninth double-double off the bench gives him the most in the league and one off the record for a Suns reserve. … Channing Frye has scored 20 in three straight games for the first time since his rookie year. He’s averaging 25.0 in his last three. … The Suns have won five of seven and eight of 11 after sweeping the Hawks. … Phoenix has won four in a row following losses.