PHOENIX — Every time the Suns’ season seems to be careening toward a “wait til next year” cliff, they pull off a resounding victory over a likely playoff team.
After an uninspiring 2-4 start they whacked the Blazers. Then after five losses in a row they upset the Knicks and Celtics on the road. Now they followed up last night’s “horrendous” effort in Portland and a three-game losing streak by slipping past the Memphis Grizzlies, 86-84.
This win won’t remind anybody of the Seven Seconds or Less era, however, as the Suns managed to win just their second game in the last four seasons when shooting under 40 percent in their 36.4 percent shooting effort.
They did so by limiting the Grizzlies to 16 points in each of the first two quarters to build a 16-point halftime lead before narrowly hanging on when Jared Dudley knocked down four clutch free throws.
“We had to gut it out at the end, but I thought after last night’s embarrassment, we came out and played with a lot of heart and found a way,” said Suns guard Steve Nash. “They are a really good team and they have a lot of talent, a lot of depth, a lot of weapons, so we did a good job defensively and we just hung on offensively.”
When Dante Cunningham tied the game with a layup at the 1:24 mark this seemed to be shaping up as a game in which the Suns’ lack of a go-to player could spell doom. It turns out all the Suns needed was for Dudley to find some contact.
After a Marcin Gortat miss, the Suns’ defense forced a Cunningham 18-footer and Marc Gasol was called for a loose ball foul during the scramble for the rebound on a play Dudley thought would go down as a no-call.
Rudy Gay answered those two foul shots with a nifty bank shot, which gave the Suns the ball with the shot clock turned off and an opportunity to make one final play. After killing the clock, Memphis’ defense on a Nash-Gortat pick-and-roll forced the ball to be rotated to Dudley, who got tripped with 3.3 seconds left.
“I have cat feet,” Dudley said to defend the debatable call. “I usually land on my feet, so you know if I don’t land on my feet it is a foul.”
Those free throws proved to be the winning margin after Mike Conley’s 30-footer fell well short. Afterward JMZ joked that he hasn’t shot free throws that big since his Boston College days when he was beating Hakim Warrick’s Orangemen.
I’ve always been fascinated with the mental aspect of clutch free throws (I once wrote an entire paper on the subject for a creative writing class back in college). Players often lie in postgame interview and say shots like that are just another free throw, but Dudley did in fact admit those shots were “definitely different.”
“This is game time,” said Dudley, the game’s star with 20 points, six boards, four assists and three steals. “Now you guys are interviewing me. If I didn’t make it you might be interviewing Steve right now.”
Nash was his usual spectacular self in his 700th game with the franchise, racking up 21 points on 8-for-14 shooting to go with six assists and five rebounds. Marcin Gortat hit just 6-of-17 in his showdown against potential All-Star center Marc Gasol (18-13) but still collected another double-double with a 13-12 game.
Meanwhile, Channing Frye’s shot continued to be off in tonight’s two-point, 1-for-9 performance. Frye has averaged 3.6 points on 21.3 percent shooting in his last seven games.
Thus Alvin Gentry’s decision to return to the starting lineup that he began the season with had a much bigger impact on Dudley than Frye. Markieff Morris continued to produce off the bench (10 points, nine rebounds) while Ronnie Price played just 6:32 as Sebastian Telfair continued as the primary backup point guard even with Price joining him on the pine.
It was a different rotation all around as Shannon Brown and Robin Lopez did not play by coach’s decision, and Josh Childress pulled down three boards (two offensive) in eight rotation minutes. Also, Telfair subbed in for Nash seven minutes into each half to allow him to return earlier than usual.
“I played the guys tonight that I thought were going to help us win,” Gentry said.
After last night’s embarrassment Gentry seems to be searching for new combinations that could be a fit. It’s obviously not an ideal situation to be in a month into the season, but at the same time since the Suns have so many potential rotation players and only two clear-cut starters it’s what needs to be done.
Dudley said he just wants to know what his role will be, whether it’s as a sixth or seventh man or a starter, although he did admit to feeling “comfortable” as a starter since he “envisioned starting this year and playing that role.”
Ideally, the Suns will eventually develop the kind of well-defined roles that catapulted the 2009-10 team to such spectacular heights, but that team was able to feature such specialization because players naturally filled particular spots on the team.
However, this season after Nash and Gortat there is so much parity between players 3-13 that Gentry may be relegated to mixing and matching and playing the hot hand or the best matchup all season long.
“It’s hard to pick the rotations,” Nash said. “It’s hard to say whether the rotation is the reason we won, you know, I don’t know. So, we’ve just got to keep working and believe in each other and hope no matter who is called upon, they’re going to go out there and play hard and try to play for each other.”
- Nash suffered “another” thigh bruise on the final play of the game when he got tangled up with Gasol setting a screen for Conley’s final heave. He previously injured his other (right) thigh against Cleveland on Jan. 12, which caused him to miss a game, but Nash is “optimistic” he will be able to play Monday against Dallas. “It’s just frustrating,” he said. “Hopefully it will settle down for Monday.”
- Morris’ locker was adorned with an Iowa State logo and the words “all we do” after the Cyclones knocked off the rookie’s No. 5-ranked Kansas Jayhawks today.
- The Suns are now 4-1 when Dudley scores 15 or more. … Nash dished six assists to put him seven shy of Kevin Johnson’s franchise record. … Gortat is now averaging double-digit boards for the first time in his career. The last Suns to do so was Matrix in 2005-06.