With Steve Nash and Channing Frye down for the count, Phoenix Suns head coach Alvin Gentry made it clear that for them to remain in the playoff race without 40 percent of their starting lineup, somebody needed to step up.
After three underwhelming quarters against the Rockets, Gentry finally got that elevated play from Vince Carter and a pair of unlikely culprits — Zabian Dowdell and Josh Childress.
Dowdell and Childress combined for 26 points, nine assists, six rebounds and five steals in 49 minutes off the bench, while Carter scored 19 second-half points to bring the Suns within striking distance after trailing by 15 in the third quarter.
Along with Carter’s scoring, the duo of Dowdell and Childress re-energized a lifeless Suns team, each drilling their first three-pointer of the season and having far and away their best games in purple and orange.
Dowdell and Childress provided a huge, unexpected lift, but without Frye or Nash to turn to with the game on the line, the Suns fell short 95-93 in Houston.
Although the Suns had no business being in the game after two and a half quarters, Dowdell (11 points, five assists, four steals and plus-20), Childress (15 points, six rebounds, four assists and plus-13) and Carter (21 points) gave them a chance down the stretch.
The trio combined for 35 of the Suns’ 49 second-half points as they did it offensively, defensively and on the boards. The Suns were chipping away at the lead early in the fourth and eventually tied things up at 91 when Childress came flying in from the weak side to follow a Carter missed three-pointer with a two-handed tip-slam.
Kyle Lowry came right back to hit a deep two to recapture the lead. After Chuck Hayes — who had a monster night with a career-high 21 points to go along with nine rebounds — made one of two free throws, Marcin Gortat cut the lead to one with 15 seconds left as he dropped in a two-handed slam.
On the Suns’ next defensive possession, Carter and Jared Dudley trapped Kevin Martin and Dudley was awarded the jump ball with the Suns down one and 13.6 seconds on the clock. Martin won the tip, but Chase Budinger ultimately made only one of two free throws, giving the Suns a chance to tie or take the lead.
Dudley, who was 3-of-8 on the night, ended up with a wide-open three-pointer on the left wing that he left an inch short as the buzzer sounded and Phoenix’s valiant effort behind a pair of unlikely heroes came up just short.
Hayes, Kevin Martin (23 points) and the Rockets’ 16 offensive rebounds were too much for the Suns, and Phoenix’s ugly first half left them too much work with not enough time. The Suns once again looked lost without Nash, and Brooks appeared clueless running the pick and roll offense.
Brooks went 1-for-9 in 20 minutes while committing three turnovers and getting abused by Lowry on the defensive end. Phoenix put up only 16 first-quarter points — their lowest first-quarter total since Nov. 18 against the Magic when Nash was out.
The Suns outscored Houston 26-23 in the second quarter to cut the deficit to a manageable eight points, but the Rockets started pulling away as they opened up the third on a 10-4 run to take a 14-point lead. The offense remained stagnant and Phoenix turned the ball over three times in the first 3:09 of the quarter.
But when Dowdell entered the game for Brooks with 7:16 left in the quarter, the Suns finally regained life. Dowdell and Carter combined for 15 of Phoenix’s final 16 points in the quarter and gave the team confidence heading into the fourth.
Behind Carter’s scoring, Dowdell’s defense (he limited Lowry to 3-for-8 shooting and two turnovers after he entered the game in the third) and Childress’ activity the Suns made a ball game out of it. But the Suns were never able to break through and take the lead (which they never had all game) and they fell 2.5 games behind Memphis for the eighth seed in the West.
Aside from Brooks’ continuously awful play, there were a lot of positives to take away from tonight’s game. Childress played as well as he has all year with his first double-digit scoring game since Dec. 20 and Dowdell proved he’s a more than capable NBA backup point guard.
But unfortunatlely for the Suns, only 17 games remain and player development and moral victories mean nothing in terms of the playoff race. They know they may be able to compete at times without Nash and Frye, but it may be too little too late.