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Phoenix Suns 109, Milwaukee Bucks 93 -- Shooting daggers once again

PHOENIX — When the Suns’ offense struggled to start the season, the team’s collective answer was that there was no reason for alarm, they were just missing shots they normally knock down.

Maybe they were right.

The Suns set a new season high for field goal percentage for the fourth straight game Sunday night and the Bucks had no chance to match the Suns’ suddenly scorching offense in Phoenix’s 109-93 blowout victory.

“I thought for the first time this year we shot the ball like we’re capable of shooting it,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “Obviously when we shoot the ball well we become that much better.”

The Suns shot 55.8 percent for the game and 62.3 percent through three quarters when the game was decided, including 10-for-22 overall shooting from three that was reminiscent of past Suns teams.

As usual, Steve Nash was the catalyst of the offensive explosion, dishing 17 assists and scoring 10 points on 5-for-7 shooting in a tidy 27 minutes. Nash set the tone early on by handing out five assists in the first 2:07 and nine in the first 6:19, getting everybody involved on a night in which all five starters scored in double figures.

“Steve was Steve,” Channing Frye said. “He’s a freak of nature, you know, he defies time and you’ve just got to make sure you get open.”

Added Gentry, “Steve is just a whole different animal when he’s in there.”

Nash’s ribs must not be bothering him much anymore as he’s now averaging 15.8 and 11.8 on 69.2 percent shooting — typical Nash numbers — in four January games after putting up 8.3 and 7.8 on 30.8 percent shooting in four December contests.

It certainly helped that when Nash dished it to an open Frye, the Suns’ forward found the bottom of the net. The UA product busted out of his season-long slump by drilling 6-of-7 shots, including 4-of-4 threes, to score a season-high 16 points in just 19 minutes of play. Frye knocked down as many threes in this one as he did in his previous seven games when he attempted 23.

Frye said he had better balance tonight and thanked the Suns for sticking with him during his struggles.

“It’s great,” Nash said. “He’s a terrific shooter and a big part of what we do spacing the floor, so to see him make some jump shots I think is good for the team, but it’s also good for Channing to take some pressure off to enjoy his game.”

Added Marcin Gortat, “That opens up the floor for me personally if he starts nailing those jump shots then obviously I got a couple good looks inside so I’m glad he’s finally starting to hit those jump shots.”

Frye opened things up for Gortat to score a game-high 18 points on 9-for-10 shooting, making him an 83.3 percent shooter the last two games (15-for-18) since losing the brace on his shooting hand.

Gortat said it feels “great” not to have the “plastic thing” on his finger and that it’s really helped him catch the ball.

Grant Hill added 14 and Jared Dudley 11 for a starting lineup that decimated Milwaukee’s top unit. Hill was a plus 28 while Nash, Dudley and Gortat were plus 26 and Frye checked in at plus 17.

The starters helped the Suns set or match a season high in scoring for the fifth time in six games. In addition, the Suns have averaged 29.8 points on 63.3 percent shooting over the first and third quarters of the past two games when the starters have received the bulk of the time.

The offensive effort should not overshadow a Suns defense that held its fourth straight opponent under 100 points after never recording a streak over three all of last season. They are also limiting opponents to a very un-Suns-like 91.5 points per game, least in franchise history.

The Bucks shot just 39.7 percent through three quarters as once again the Suns’ defense shined. Sure, some of that could be attributed to dead legs with Milwaukee playing its fifth game in seven nights (not to mention the absence of Andrew Bogut and Mike Dunleavy) but the Suns’ defense is clearly making strides.

“We knew they were coming on five games seven nights, but it wasn’t about them it was about us improving defensively,” Dudley said. “You can obviously see the improvement with getting at it and starting to make shots.”

Gentry has been harping all along that the Suns’ early offensive struggles have nothing to do with their increased focus on defense, and after stringing together a pair of complete performances (albeit against exhausted opponents) we’re starting to see the potential of this Suns team.

With a healthy Nash creating open looks and his teammates finally knocking them down on top of the improved defense, the Suns suddenly look like a legitimate playoff contender, which is a far cry from what they seemed to be following their opening pair of home losses.

Gortat cautioned fans not to get too excited because this is just two games but he feels if the Suns continue to bring this kind of energy on both ends there’s no reason to think they can’t continue to win games.

With a visit to the Lakers coming up Tuesday and then a vicious five-game road trip starting next week, we will soon find out whether the Suns were just taking advantage of the schedule or if this weekend’s sweep portends a complete team that can be the playoff squad the Suns would be if the season ended today.

“Our defense has improved, our offense is coming around,” Nash said. “We’ve had some times to get in a little bit of a groove here, but we’ll be tested soon so we’ve got to keep it moving.”

And 1

  • Yes, the Bucks lost again in Phoenix. The Bucks dropped their 24th straight contest in Phoenix, meaning it’s been 9,087 days since Milwaukee emerged from the Valley victorious. The 24-game streak ties the Suns’ longest home winning streak in team history (Sacramento, 1988-98) and is already the longest in terms of days. Only the Spurs’ 27-game run against the Warriors is a better active streak.
  • Frye said his slump was in some respects “a blessing in disguise” because it caused him to focus on other areas of his game such as defense and rebounding. “I think the biggest thing last year was everybody’s like, ‘What are you going to do when the shot’s not falling?’ I wanted to work on other things and continue to be a better player,” Frye said.
  • The Suns are back to .500 for the first time since March 27 of last season. … Grant Hill knocked down his first trey of the year after missing his first 10 attempts. He raised his arms to make the three-point signal after canning the shot. … Nash’s 17 assists were one shy of an NBA season best. … Markieff Morris earned his first career double-double with 13 points and 10 boards along with his third outing of 3-for-4 shooting from deep. … Shannon Brown scored a season-high 14 points for the second straight game. … Josh Childress played his first minutes of 2012 with six minutes of garbage time. He recorded a steal but no other stats.
  • Gentry pregame: “This is a game that we should win. If we’re going to be a playoff team, this is a game we’ve got to try to take care of.” Mission accomplished.

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