PHOENIX — Through two and a half quarters, the Phoenix Suns seemed to be cruising to an easy win on their third consecutive game night behind some torrid shooting and a zone they mixed in to throw off Atlanta’s offense.
The Suns’ zone worked well enough that the Hawks decided to give it a try as well, and immediately Phoenix’s top shooting night of the season was no more.
“I thought the turning point was we just couldn’t seem to get anything going against their zone,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “We had shots available, couldn’t knock them down.”
Added Jared Dudley, “That’s what we did to them so kind of funny that they did that right back to us.”
But it wasn’t so funny for the Suns’ offense.
The Hawks switched to a zone midway through the third with the Suns leading by double digits and Phoenix’s hold on the game ended there. The Suns still led by five three minutes into the fourth but a 12-0 Hawks spurt during a four-minute Phoenix fourth-quarter drought led Atlanta to tonight’s 101-99 victory.
Steve Nash said the zone threw off the Suns’ rhythm as players received looks they weren’t accustomed to since the team has not faced much zone. In turn the offense looked a bit lost without the pick and roll to fall back on in crunch time.
The whole purpose of a zone is to see if a team can makes shots, as Gentry said. If a team makes a few shots in a row — as the Hawks did — you switch back to man, as the Suns did. But the Suns never could knock down those critical shots to force Atlanta back to man and thus they followed a scorching 59.1 percent shooting first quarter with 42.9 percent shooting in the fourth.
The turning point of the game revolved around the zone as well, but not the way you might think.
After Josh Smith scored a bucket and got fouled with 7:38 left, Nash noticed Kirk Hinrich calling double fists, which is the sign for Atlanta’s zone defense. He sauntered over to the sideline and mouthed that to Gentry before asking what zone offense to run.
Before Smith could step to the line for his foul shot, the whistle sounded and Nash was blindsided with a technical foul that he protested vociferously, later saying the official thought he said, “They’re horrible.”
“It’s just unfortunate that he misinterpreted what I said,” Nash said. “It was just a tough break that changed the momentum.”
The Hawks took the lead on the technical shot and Smith’s subsequent free toss and never gave it back, although they came awfully close to giving the Suns a chance to tie down two with 2.1 ticks remaining when Smith threw a length of the court pass that Willie Green ran down to prevent Phoenix from getting the ball under its own basket.
If that script sounds familiar then it should because it’s the same story that played out Monday in Oakland when the Suns blew a double-digit lead midway through the third and then trailed throughout the fourth, and it’s very similar to the Rockets game last Thursday when a late seven-point advantage quickly evaporated.
“It sounds like it’s Groundhog Day all over again,” Dudley said. “We had a lead, a double-digit lead, and they came back. It’s happened a little too often, we’re having these dry spells of scoring. It happened obviously today, it happened obviously in Denver, it happened in Golden State. We’ve got to find ways to score. I think the dry spells killed us. We let a team that talented hang around, they’re going to come back to bite us.”
The Suns still hit 53.6 percent of their shots overall, but that’s only because they were on pace for a season-best shooting night through three quarters. The offense bogged down when it counted and then they could not stop Smith at the other end, as the talented swingman filled the box score with 30 points, 17 rebounds, seven assists, four steals and three blocks on 12-for-23 shooting.
The decision to rest Nash and Hill sure seemed to pay off, as Two Time exploded for 22 points and 16 assists, making him the league’s only player with multiple 15-15 games this season.
Hill looked spry on the offensive end by scoring 18 points (one short of a season high) on 8-for-11 shooting, but his most impressive accomplishment must be holding Joe Johnson to six points on 2-for-10 shooting (and at least one of those shots wasn’t on Hill) after limiting Tyreke Evans and Monta Ellis to a combined 6-for-29 on the trip.
Nash said that although he wants to play every game, taking a breather every now and again is smart because usually injuries like Chauncey Billups’ torn Achilles come from “a cumulative effect of fatigue.”
With the loss the Suns once again were left to lament their home struggles, as they have now lost six of eight at home to fall to 5-8 in US Airways Center, the second-worst home mark in the West and the worst of any team with fewer than 22 losses (the Suns have 18). By contrast, Phoenix is the West’s seventh-best road team.
“I think that’s the biggest thing for us,” Gentry said. “We’ve played good enough basketball on the road that if we were playing like we are supposed to at home then obviously our record would be so much different and we’d be right in the middle of the playoffs. But, you still got to play them and still got to win them at home. I don’t know why we just seem to struggle at home.”
It’s hard to say, but we know this latest home loss capped a devastating stretch of three losses in three days, a stretch Dudley laments since two of those games were so winnable.
Yet the Suns once came up empty at home after a fourth-quarter drought against Atlanta’s zone spoiled an overall solid performance.
“It’s one of those deals where we played good basketball for 35-38 minutes, but it’s a 48-minute game,” Gentry said.
- Dudley on the three games in a row stretch: “Definitely difficult mentally as well as physically.”
- Bret LaGree from Hoopinion in the Daily Dime: “That was … feast or famine: Great as Nash was with the ball in his hands, whenever one of his teammates put the ball on the floor, it was an adventure. Nash put up a shot, got fouled, earned an assist, or committed a turnover on 38 of Phoenix’s 96 possessions, leading to 56 points. Phoenix scored just 43 points on the other 58 possessions, turning the ball over 16 times.”
- The Hawks ended a five-game losing streak against the Suns and snapped a four-year run of losses in the Valley. Such streaks seem to be ending quite often this season.
- Shannon Brown and Hakim Warrick went back to not playing after getting some burn last night in Denver.