Houston Rockets 96, Phoenix Suns 89 -- Dragon’s revenge

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PHOENIX — Goran Dragic made a name for himself feasting on opposing bench units two years ago in US Airways Center.

The Dragon returned to the scene of the crime Thursday and pulled the trick once again, leading a Rockets bench that was the difference in Houston’s 96-89 win over the Suns as was so often the case for Phoenix’s special 2009-10 reserve unit.

“Their bench came in and did a great job as they did last night,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry, whose team’s three-game winning streak ended. “You have to match that energy level. Their second unit really is the one that controlled the game.”

Houston’s reserves outscored the Suns’ bench 57-13, with all but two of Phoenix’s bench points coming courtesy of Michael Redd.

Meanwhile, all five Rockets bench players (Dragic, former UA stars Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill, Patrick Patterson and Courtney Lee) reached double figures. Dragic was a career-high plus 27 in this one, while Budinger was a plus 25 and Patterson plus 22 as every Rockets reserve was at least plus 17 and each starter no better than minus 13.

The Houston bench wrested control of the game in the second quarter with a 13-0 spurt that helped the Rockets lead by 10 at the half. Kevin McHale went back to his bench five minutes into the second half when the Suns fought back to regain the lead, and then Dragic and Budinger joined three starters for a late 8-0 Rockets run that put Houston up seven with just over three minutes remaining.

Dragic finished with 11 points and a season-high-tying 11 assists while sparking the Houston reserve corps with the kind of energy Suns fans are so accustomed to.

“I think Goran’s been great, particularly two years ago for us he played as well as he’s playing now, so I think he’s always had it in him and he’s got a chance to be a really, really good player,” said Suns guard Steve Nash, his former mentor. “He played well tonight, I think he’s playing well consistently for them, but I think the best is still to come for him.  He’s got a lot of talent, he’s competitive and he works hard, so obviously a lot of us believe in him and are rooting for him.”

The Rockets’ bench prowess made the Suns’ off game off the pine all the more glaring. Due to their ineffectiveness, only Redd played more than 13 minutes as every starter logged at least 30 and Frye and Gortat were over 40. Robin Lopez and Markieff Morris played six and a half minutes, and Shannon Brown, Ronnie Price and Hakim Warrick once again didn’t even play.

Aside from the bench issues, Phoenix also lost this game on the backboards.

Gentry could not get over the fact that the Rockets scored 22 second-chance points (20 in the first half) off their 12 offensive boards whereas Phoenix scored just six off five offensive caroms.

“You can’t give up 22 points on second-chance points and have six,” Gentry said. “That’s just too much of a discrepancy there. The thing that’s so disheartening about it is that first possessions we played great, they shot in the 30s and second-chance points they ended up shooting 48 percent because of second-chance points. I thought we battled and did a good job, but we have to find a way to come up with the ball.”

No single Rocket destroyed the Suns on the glass, but as seems to be the case with everything about Houston they did this as a team. Five players grabbed either six or seven boards but nobody hit the glass for more than that (the two leading rebounders in the game were actually Frye with 10 and Gortat with nine). However, Luis Scola (five) and Samuel Dalembert (three) were bears on the offensive glass.

“We gave up tons of offensive rebounds,” Gortat said. “I’ve got to play better.

“Personally I don’t know what I was doing the first five minutes. I was sleeping out there, I guess. I didn’t play really hard. They had a couple offensive rebounds, we could have easily had 12-point lead, and that’s how it is.”

Added Frye, “They established they were going to get on the glass early.”

Despite all the rebounding issues and the bench disparity, the Suns actually led by a point with 6:10 left when Nash banked in one of his seven field goals (on seven attempts).

But poor execution that led to six turnovers followed to seal the Suns’ fate as they went scoreless for nearly four minutes.

“I think we just didn’t execute down the stretch,” Frye said. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make every play and be perfect at the end, and we can’t do that. We have to make sure we are in a good rhythm and establish how we’re going to play in the first half.”

Nash called this “a really disappointing loss” being that the Suns had seemed to find their mojo on the recent road trip whereas Houston was getting in late after a hard-fought game in Portland last night (you might remember how things ended up when the Blazers made such a trip on short rest).

Nash called it “a winnable game,” yet the Suns could not extend their winning streak to four because there were too many plays in which they were “mentally switched off,” as Nash put it.

Now the Suns must confront a reality in which their 5-7 home record is holding back a team that boasts a very respectable 6-8 road mark. Good teams go 6-8 on the road – in fact the Suns possess the West’s sixth-best road record ahead of teams like the Lakers, Spurs and Blazers — but only the lowly Hornets are worse at home.

This must be killing Gentry because every year he emphasizes how critical it is to take care of your home court yet the Suns could not follow up their stellar road trip with a key home win.

“It is terrible,” Frye said. “The fans are doing a great job, coming out here and supporting us and like I said, we just have to take advantage of the opportunities that we have here and definitely start winning at home.

“This is starting to really suck and I think the fans want to see us win; they come out, pay good money to see us play well and tonight we just didn’t do it, we didn’t execute, but we’re going to continue to work hard, go on this road trip and do the best we can.”

And 1

  • The Suns have lost three in a row to the Rockets after beating them seven consecutive times. … Frye scored a season-high 21 points to pick up his third double-double of the season and first since Jan. 2. … Nash leads the league with 12 double-doubles of points and assists.
  • Reader Neal did some digging on Basketball Reference and discovered a unique stat on Nash’s performance Thursday night. Two Time made the second-most field goals (seven) in a game in which the player dishes at least 13 assists, doesn’t miss a shot and doesn’t attempt a three or a free throw; Jeff Hornacek did the same thing while canning eight shots for the Suns in 1988. Avery Johnson, Nate McMillan and John Stockton are the only other player to put up such a stat line, just with fewer field goals.
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