PHOENIX — Suns fans received their first peak of what life without Steve Nash and Grant Hill might look like Friday night.
Perhaps New Jersey’s 110-103 victory over the Suns exhibits why Lon Babby isn’t so eager to close the curtain on this illustrious era of Suns basketball.
But the problem wasn’t offense, even without the Suns’ quarterback, a player Jared Dudley compared to Peyton Manning. The Suns actually shot 51.9 percent and saw all five starters score at least 13 points yet lost their first game of the season when reaching triple digits.
The Suns even got the game of his life from Nash’s replacement Ronnie Price, yet it wasn’t enough as Deron Williams reminded them exactly the kind of difference a star in his prime can make.
Williams has struggled a bit this season for his standards — entering the game with averages of 16.9 points and 8.2 assists per game — before exploding for 35 points and 14 dimes on 11-for-18 shooting, including 6-for-9 on threes, to become the first player since LeBron on Feb. 18 of last year to put up those kind of numbers.
“He set the tone,” Dudley said. “They’ve been struggling — look at their record — and he knew that they needed a win and he took advantage of it.”
Added head coach Alvin Gentry, “I thought that Deron Williams just took over the game.”
The Suns adjusted their pick-and-roll coverage on Williams but that only created space for their lethal three-point shooters, as New Jersey knocked down 15-of-32 long balls for the game.
Phoenix just had no answer for Williams in the third quarter, when he ripped the nets for 18 points on 6-for-7 shooting and handed out four dimes. On the other side Price played the offensive quarter of his life with 12 points and five assists yet every time he made a nice play Williams would go down and answer.
That’s just what superstars do.
Price will never be confused with a superstar, but in scoring a career-high 18 points he looked like an ideal backup for Nash.
For a player whose pure point rating was so “unspeakably awful” last season, he looked every bit like a playmaker in dishing eight assists and doing a nice job setting up teammates for easy buckets. He certainly seemed to distance himself from Sebastian Telfair, who knocked down just 2-of-8 shots and didn’t run the offense quite as well as Price.
“I’m having the ball in my hands more than I’ve ever had it in my hands before,” Price said. “It allows me to work on some things and actually utilize some of the skills I thought I maybe had.”
However, Price refused to take any satisfaction from his impressive individual game being that it came in a team loss. Instead he lamented some mistakes and vowed to use this game film to improve.
It was a surprising night for Price on every level, starting at 5 p.m. when he found out Two Time would not be playing and that instead he would be receiving his first start since Feb. 22, 2010, against a star player he went head to head with every day in practice for the better part of four seasons in Utah.
One would think that familiarity would have led to a better defensive effort for the defensive-minded Price, yet he shone offensively instead while failing to limit a player he called a top-three point guard before the game.
The Suns received a predictably stellar game from Marcin Gortat (20 and 10 on 10-for-14), a nice all-around game from Frye (15 points, seven assists and six boards) and 18 points from Dudley.
However, their offensive prowess is certainly mitigated a good degree by the fact New Jersey entered the game ranked last in defensive efficiency so the solid offense without Nash would be much more impressive against a legitimate NBA defense.
Perhaps the opponent is one of the reasons the Suns felt comfortable giving Nash and Hill the day of rest.
Particularly with Two Time, the way he accumulates injuries we knew there would days he would just need to rest to stay fresher and more effective in the games he does play. It made perfect sense to try to get a banged-up Nash feeling good entering the road trip, but that line of thinking only works with a victory.
Everybody I interviewed postgame maintained a positive attitude and discussed the need to just improve. There was talk of having smart basketball players with good character who won’t get down on each other.
I buy all that, yet the Suns know they are staring down the barrel of a five-game road trip that Frye called “the toughest of anyone in the NBA,” a five-gamer in which Dudley said the Suns must “steal some games against teams that are the best in the NBA.”
The Suns understand what they are up against facing the Spurs, Bulls, Knicks, Celtics and Mavericks before returning home to US Airways Center. It’s the kind of trip that can bury a team that just let the lowly Cavs and Nets escape their building with victories.
“We’ve got to get some wins,” Price said. “This is a good opportunity for us to grow and actually show some type of bounce back on this road trip. I felt like we didn’t take care of home court the way we should, and now we’ve got to go get some wins on somebody else’s floor.”
If they don’t they could dig a hole that would be difficult to emerge from even with a prime Nash and Hill.
- Josh Childress remained chained to the bench despite the injury to Hill, and Michael Redd scored just two points on 1-for-5 shooting in 13 minutes yet got torched by impressive Nets rookie MarShon Brooks, who scored 20 points. Gentry had to take Redd out early in the second quarter after Brooks scored two easy isolation buckets on him and then drew a foul to start the period.
- Phoenix dropped to 10-24 (.294) without Nash since the start of 2004-05. … The Nets scored nine second-chance points in the first 10 minutes but then went 29 minutes without scoring another one. … The Suns recorded their highest assist total without Nash since February 2009 with 26 helpers. … Gortat is averaging 16.0 and 9.4 on 69.6 percent shooting without the splint on his shooting hand. … Kris Humphries received a smattering of boos all game. He scored 15 points and grabbed six boards.