PHOENIX — It happened so suddenly that few among the US Airways Center faithful even knew why the Suns’ stud center was writhing in the paint with blood spilling onto the hardwood.
The play started like so many others, with Steve Nash preparing to catch an inbounds pass and Marcin Gortat heading upcourt after tossing the ball to Grant Hill.
But on a night when the Hornets downed the Suns 106-100, the ensuing collision between Nash and Gortat that broke the Polish center’s nose and ended his night with 16 minutes remaining in the game served as the knockout punch for a Suns season that has featured just this kind of luck.
“It’s a stab close to the heart,” Jared Dudley said of the loss. “It’s one of those that is not over but it hurts, especially at home against a team that we are trying to chase.”
Sure, 11 games remain on the schedule and the Suns stayed positive in the postgame locker room by clinging to the fact they have not been mathematically eliminated, but it’s not much solace after the opportunity they missed out on Friday night.
A win over the Hornets would have pulled them within one game of Memphis in the loss column and two of the Hornets. More importantly it would have given them the chance to win the tiebreaker April 8 in New Orleans, whereas now they are five back overall of the Hornets and won’t possess the tiebreaker.
Phoenix’s only hope now is a collapse by Memphis – three up overall with the tiebreaker after losing tonight – while the Suns take care of business against a schedule that includes two games against both Dallas and San Antonio on top of contests against the Bulls, Thunder and Hornets. Then there’s plucky Houston with five wins in a row, further nailing shut the Suns’ coffin.
“For us to lose it hurts us,” Gentry said. “We just have to try to continue to plug away. We’re not going to quit, we’ll keep playing hard, we’ll keep competing and we will do the best we can.”
Gentry spun it positive, but he surely understands the dire effects of this loss.
The Suns controlled the game through three quarters, but they could not stop the Hornets in the fourth without Gortat. New Orleans outscored Phoenix 33-22 in the period behind 72.2 percent shooting to go with a 7-4 rebounding edge.
The Suns could not get stops when they counted, as Chris Paul took over with eight points and four assists in the quarter. He scored at will and made all the right reads, while the Suns could not match that execution on their end.
“Paul is a master like that, pretty unstoppable,” said Aaron Brooks. “He did a good job of willing his team to victory in the fourth quarter.”
Added Gentry, “Chris Paul made a couple of really big plays for them and did a really good job. Unfortunately for us, we just couldn’t quite get over the hump.”
Paul decisively won the point guard battle as Nash struggled throughout one of his worst games in recent memory with just three points on 1-for-9 shooting to go with “only” eight assists in his 34:46 of work.
He clearly missed Gortat in crunch time, as the Suns could not go to their patented pick-and-roll between the duo. The injury also forced Channing Frye to play all 24 minutes in the second half and it made the Suns small, as Gentry didn’t dare go back to Robin Lopez after a horrid first half in which a frustrated Lopez picked up four fouls in less than four minutes.
With Gortat gone in such a critical matchup this could have been a perfect time for Lopez to step up and prove his worth, but he was so horrid in the first half that Gentry preferred the defensive stalwart combination of Frye and Warrick, and New Orleans shot 72 percent.
In what could be the last truly meaningful game of the Nash era in Phoenix, isn’t it fitting that the key play was of all things a fluke injury, with Nash of all people dishing out the punishment after all the strange ailments that have plagued him in crucial playoff games over the years.
Gortat had been rolling before the injury, scoring 18 points and grabbing 10 rebounds despite missing the final 16 minutes, and the Suns were plus 11 in his 27 minutes of work.
Gortat told Fox Sports Arizona that he feels “really weird right now” and “kind of dizzy.” He has a doctor’s appointment for 8 a.m. Saturday to figure out the next step, and FSAZ’s Mark McClune said he stopped the interview early because he could see how woozy Gortat looked.
“It was big,” Brooks said of losing Gortat. “That’s our man in the middle, he’s shutting it down. He gets blocks, rebounds, a couple loose balls, offensive rebounds that Gortat would have got, but that’s basketball. You’ve got to play through that, guys have got to step up when a guy goes down.”
It wasn’t just Gortat, as the Suns received even less production out of their other Orlando acquisitions. Vince Carter played just the first 9:33 (bricking three shots) and then missed the rest of the game with a virus, and Mickael Pietrus’ knee kept him inactive for this one.
Some would argue the Suns were better off with Dudley getting Carter’s time (17 points and eight boards in 36 minutes) and the Suns did get fantastic contributions from Brooks (17 points on 7-for-9 shooting in 15:38) and Warrick (13), but in the end they could not overcome Paul’s brilliance without Gortat and company.
“We have all the excuses in the world but we went out there and played our best basketball and had a chance to win, but we couldn’t knock down a couple of shots and couldn’t get a couple key stops,” Dudley said.
Sure, the season didn’t end because of an untimely injury and an opposing superstar taking over, but rather because the Suns only flirted with consistency but never could maintain it all season.
Too many times they let a Sacramento or a Memphis or a Detroit or a Chicago back into a game they seemed to have won, and too many times they had to integrate new teammates with parts that didn’t always fit.
As the Suns prepare to play out the final 11 games and pray for a miracle, they are what they have been all season: a .500 team, good enough to look like a sure playoff team at times and bad enough to prevent that from happening.
“Yeah, this was a tough one,” Hill said. “There have been a lot of tough ones this year. We’ve just got to sort of regroup and recover and get ready for another tough one on Sunday.”
Unfortunately for the Suns, they have already suffered one tough loss too many.