PHOENIX — If Sunday’s matinee against the Orlando Magic was a glimpse into the future of a Steve Nash-less future, Suns fans better enjoy every healthy minute they have left with Two Time.
Phoenix scored 13 points in the third quarter and 36 in the second half as the Suns finished the third quarter by missing 12 straight shots during a second-half stretch in which they went 8:44 without a field goal.
“I thought we played well but they’re just a totally different team without Steve Nash,” said Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy, who has now missed Nash twice. “I thought Aaron Brooks was great today. He scored a lot but Steve Nash just sets everybody else up and gets everybody else playing. We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve played them twice and both times without Steve Nash and it’s just a whole different ball game.
“He may be more important to them than anybody else is to any team in the league. You look over the years how they’ve played when he’s out and, you know they’re a playoff team with him and they really struggle just to compete in games without him. You can’t overstate his value.”
The Suns have lost all three games Nash has missed, getting outscored by 19 points per game and shooting 43.2 percent (compared to 48.8 percent shooting while Nash is on the floor). Since returning to Phoenix the Suns are 9-20 without Nash (.310) and 356-171 with him (.676).
Aaron Brooks played a superb first half with 19 points and seven assists on 8-for-10 shooting but he did not score and dished just three more assists in the second half. Similarly Marcin Gortat scored 10 on 5-for-6 shooting in the first half but added just one more bucket in the second and besides them the rest of the Suns shot 17-for-57 (29.8 percent) as a team for the game. Both players kept the Suns in this one with their strong first halves and both said they need to go back to the drawing board to figure out how to bring that same production in both halves.
“I just got out of my rhythm,” Brooks said. “I just wasn’t as aggressive as I should have been in the second half.”
Added Gortat: “In the second half again I kind of disappeared. I don’t know the reason. I’ve got to figure out to find a way in the second half to be more aggressive because that’s not the first time I score 10-12 points in the first half and maybe one bucket in the second half.”
With Orlando decimating the Suns on the glass by a 57-40 margin thanks to Dwight Howard’s 26 and 15, the Suns had no chance without Nash, who said he’s 50-50 to doubtful for Monday in Houston but should be back Wednesday in New Orleans.
Nash felt it was important to take a day off, a day in which he improved, after playing hurt the last two weeks. Nash’s assist numbers have stayed steady in that time but he’s only taken 6.6 shots per game his last five (hitting 45.5 percent) while averaging just 8.6 points per game.
“I think I could have played today, but at the expense of jeopardizing my health for the rest of the season and giving us a chance hopefully to have everybody as healthy as possible to get in the playoffs, I think it’s the best thing not to play,” Nash said.
Without him, Jared Dudley compared the Suns’ offense to the Lakers trying to run the triangle without Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol since nobody in the NBA can run Phoenix’s offense as well as Nash.
“Steve is the backbone of our team. I mean, obviously, he gets guys good looks and he creates situations where we have pace and rhythm and things like that,” Gentry said. “But we don’t have Steve, so we have to create that some other way. It has to come collectively. You know, everybody — we have to have someone step up.”
Brooks did record his 10th career double-double and he came a point shy of his fourth career 20-10 game but the offense lacked the same rhythm it has with Nash. Brooks canned many open mid-range jumpers off the pick-and-roll but he did not do much in the way of passing out of the pick-and-roll and when he went cold so did the Suns.
Gortat seemed to be jumping out of his skin in anticipation of his matchup against his former position mate, and it was all business between the two, with Gortat saying he and Howard didn’t so much as shake hands or say one word to each other during the game whereas many other players such as Dudley and Jason Richardson were particularly friendly.
The Polish center at least held his ground defensively although Howard still enjoyed a big game, but Superman rendered Gortat ineffective on the boards. Marcin’s four rebounds marked his lowest total aside from his 10-minute stint Jan. 24 in Philadelphia since he started playing consistent minutes on Jan. 19.
“It’s definitely different than in practice,” Gortat said of playing against Howard. “I’ve seen it in practice he will hit me twice harder and he will play more dirty. I think he knew I was going to wait for the offensive foul, and he knew I would try to take a charge. It’s really, really hard to guard this guy. I would say I had a pretty solid day.”
As ugly as the rebounding discrepancy was Gentry’s mantra after the game involved the fact that the Suns wouldn’t even beat a team in the NCAA Tournament if they score 36 points in the second half, especially not a team as offensively explosive as Orlando.
The Suns now have failed to lead in consecutive ugly blowouts, dropping their first games in a row since Jan. 24-26 when their 11-3 run started, and with Nash and Frye ailing suddenly all the progress made the last two months is starting to wash away.
“I think we play without life,” Gortat said. “We are not a really pumped up team. We need a vocal leader who’s going to step in and build us up a little bit. We play through the motions, we’re not really enjoying playing in certain moments.
“We’re really missing first of all Steve and Channing is a big difference. We need a bit more life. We need to have more fun from playing basketball, enjoy. After good possessions we have to be more pumped up, the bench has to be more pumped up to play the game. We’re just kind of missing that in the last few games.
“We’ve got to change that as fast as possible.”
Perhaps all that is a function of playing without a healthy Steve Nash who can share the ball and create the kind of fun atmosphere that has made the Suns so good these past few years.
If the Suns learned anything Sunday afternoon it’s that playing without Nash is about as fun as dealing with pelvic instability.
Hedo Turkoglu on why things didn’t work out in Phoenix: “It was just hard for a couple months to try to change things, to try to get the ball into my hands like [it is with Nash]. That’s why I was used more like a spot-up guy and try to play off the ball. Here I’m playing more with the ball and trying to do things that mostly point guards do, creating my own shots and for my teammates, too.” Hedo looked like a different player in this one than the pure spot-up guy he was in Phoenix. … The Suns made just one of their first 11 threes. … The Magic won their first game in Phoenix since Nov. 14, 2001, after dropping their last eight. That helped Orlando sweep the season series for the first time since 2001-02.