Nursing a three-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, I wondered how long Alvin Gentry would wait to re-insert Steve Nash into a game his team couldn’t lose as it clings to playoff hopes that took a major hit during last week’s four-game losing streak.
But the only tough decision Gentry ended up facing this fourth quarter was whether to leave his bench in longer than usual after the unit stymied the Clippers with a 10-2 run during the first five-plus minutes of the period to allow the Suns to take a commanding lead they would never relinquish in their 108-99 victory in Los Angeles Sunday afternoon.
The bench forced eight straight misses to begin the final period before Eric Gordon finally made a layup almost five minutes into the quarter and the Clippers never got closer than three possessions from there on out.
The crucial sequence started when a Mickael Pietrus block led to a fast-break follow from Jared Dudley off a Zabian Dowdell miss. But that duo wasn’t done as Dowdell made a steal in the backcourt and Dudley dished it right back for another layup before JMZ hustled back to his bench for the ensuing timeout to a greeting from a mob of giddy teammates.
It was the kind of hustle sequence that epitomized the spirit of last year’s bench, something that has occurred far too seldom this season as the bench did what it did so often last season by turning a ballgame in doubt into a Suns victory this afternoon.
With Aaron Brooks suspended for throwing a ball at an official Friday against Golden State, Dowdell played his second straight superb game after being a critical part of the Houston rally on Monday with 11 points, five dimes and four steals. This time he finished with eight points (six in six minutes of the fourth) and a pair of assists but it was his energy and scrappiness that lit a fire under the second unit in this one.
Dudley served as a co-catalyst, Hakim Warrick chipped in with six points and Marcin Gortat nearly outrebounded the Clippers in the final quarter with eight of the Suns’ 13 rebounds, while Phoenix’s defense held Los Angeles to 36.8 percent shooting in the fourth.
For the game the Suns got 47.2 percent of their scoring from the bench with three guys in double figures, and Gortat (+12) and Dudley (+11) were the plus/minus leaders for the team.
The Suns surely didn’t miss Brooks in this one and the bench even seemed to play more cohesively with the high-energy Dowdell running the point.
The bench made the final push, but Steve Nash put them in that position with another game that proved he’s got to be feeling a bit better. Nash finished with 23 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds while shooting 8-for-13 from the field and 3-for-3 from deep a game after tossing up a 17-10-6 line in his second game back Friday after missing a pair of games with pelvic instability.
Two Time went for 15-7-7 in the first half alone and showed few ill effects of the injury that hampered him so much before his rest.
Gentry said before he sat out the two games that Nash had been either missing or failing to take shots that he’s been hitting his whole career, and Nash’s health can often be seen in his shot attempts, particularly from deep. Nash has now attempted three three-pointers in each of his three games since returning after combining for five in his previous four games before sitting out, and he’s hit 6-of-7 in the last two.
Perhaps some of Nash’s mastery in this one could be attributed to a porous Clippers defense that neglected to rotate time and time again on the pick-and-roll (the biggest no-no there is when defending Nash), but he looked like a different player than the guy we saw a week ago against Denver.
Along with Nash, Channing Frye’s shoulder sure looked healthy after a rusty first half in which he missed all four of his shot attempts (all threes). Frye exploded for all 19 of his points in the second half on 6-for-10 shooting with five long balls in the bunch, including a pair in the final three minutes to thwart any potential Clippers comeback attempt.
Today marked two weeks since Frye separated his shoulder in Oklahoma City and when he returned early I wondered if the aftereffects of the injury might alter his shot or lead him into one of the prolonged slumps he’s been known to be prone to. Those fears were exacerbated by clanking some open shots Friday and then missing his first five shots today, so perhaps his hot second half will prevent any kind of cold streak.
With so many tough games coming up against winning squads, the Suns could not afford a loss to the Clippers. The Hollinger Playoff Odds gave Phoenix just an 8.6 percent chance of reaching postseason play before this win that moves the team within two games of Memphis for the No. 8 spot, and they will need to beat many better teams as well in the coming weeks to have a shot.
The odds are certainly less than favorable with Houston and Utah in the hunt as well, but with a healthy Nash and Frye and a bench stepping up to win a few games in the fourth it’s not exactly time to start thinking lottery quite yet.
Nash took a trip to Vancouver on Saturday for the inaugural game of the Vancouver Whitecaps, the MLS expansion team Nash is a part-owner of. According to The Associated Press, Nash “banged a drum in the Empire Field stands while wearing a Whitecaps scarf and a No. 13 jersey.” … The battle of the boards was even, 38-38. … Blake Griffin fouled out on a monster posterization of Marcin Gortat, in which Gortat stepped over to take the charge with the Suns up 13 with just over four minutes remaining. Said Gentry, “That was one hell of a dunk. I don’t care if it was a charge. That might be as impressive of a dunk as I have seen in the NBA in 23 years. I think that was the best dunk he’s had since he was in the league.” … The Suns kept Griffin in check all game, holding him to 17 points on 6-for-18 shooting to go with a career-low two rebounds. Eric Gordon scored only 10 on 4-for-11 marksmanship against Grant Hill’s defense.