PHOENIX — Close your eyes and you could almost imagine being transported back to 2010, a better time for this franchise when a home game against the Lakers meant a battle between powerhouses.
For one of the first times this season, a special electricity ran through US Airways Center with a flock of Lakers fans in attendance bringing out the best in the Suns fans in the stands and the Suns on the floor as well.
“It was motivating seeing all the Lakers fans out on our home court,” Channing Frye said. “I felt like our fans came out tonight, and we wanted to really take it to their fans and make sure we got back that loss.”
After the Lakers looked like men amongst boys Friday night against this Suns squad in Staples Center, as Mike Schmitz put it, the Suns blitzkrieged the Lakers by playing with the rhythm and effectiveness of Nash’s best teams during a near perfect first quarter before hanging on for a 102-90 victory that snapped a four-game losing streak.
That quarter perhaps represents the peak for this Suns team as they did nearly everything right. That entailed shooting 56 percent, committing just two turnovers, limiting the Lakers to one offensive board, running to eight fast break point and having Nash dissect Los Angeles for seven assists and Marcin Gortat dominate for nine points and nine boards (as many as the Lakers as a team) while setting a season high in first quarter points.
There was already a definitive feel in the air that this was a big game, something often experienced during the Suns’ heyday, and the vintage first quarter only continued the party.
“I thought our ball movement in the first quarter was great and the execution was really good,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “I thought the defensive execution was even better. It just was a really good win.”
The Lakers, of course, made a run after the Suns led by as many as 27 early in the second half and then 26 with 5:16 remaining in the third, getting it all the way down to 10 with 4:21 remaining on a couple Kobe free throws as many in the Suns section of the crowd likely began to wonder if this would be the Suns’ worst collapse yet. But despite 20 second-half points and four assists from Bryant, Los Angeles never reduced the lead to single digits.
As always when these teams lace them up, the Suns’ defensive game plan centered around Bryant. After watching the man who hates them pick them apart for 48 and 36 points in their first two matchups, the Suns sent hard doubles from different angles to “limit” him to 32 points to go with his seven boards and five assists. Yet there was an ugly “10” in the turnover line, one fewer than the Suns as a team.
“He gets pretty determined to score and we decided to be just as determined to make it difficult for him,” Nash said. “We tried to make him shoot over two guys and pass the ball. I thought guys were really aggressive. Grant does a great job, he’s really solid. You can never stop Kobe, but he does a good job of just being there every time and if he makes shots, he makes shots, but it’s tough when you’ve got Grant right in your face every play.”
Added Hill, “He still scored above his average. One of these days I’ll try to keep him under his average.”
That’s OK when he needs 24 shots to get his 32 points and when they are coupled with the double-figure turnover numbers.
It’s also fine when Bynum (16 and 10) and Gasol (17 and 12) are held in check and the Lakers get seldom any production from anyone else. Their other starters combined for a mere two points and their bench contributed just 23, led by Troy Murphy’s eight. When it’s the Kobe Show and he’s barely above his league-leading average, you’re probably going to win the game.
Meanwhile, Marcin Gortat continued his dominance of the Lakers with his second straight 20-15 game against them his weekend (he finished with 21 and 15). The Polish Hammer is now averaging 19.3 points and 14.3 boards against Los Angeles’ vaunted front line, and only Dwight Howard, Kevin Love and DeMarcus Cousins own more 20-15 games than Gortat’s three for the season.
In all five Suns scored in double figures, but Nash wasn’t one of them, as he tallied just eight to go with his 14 assists to raise his assist average above 11.0 for the first time this year.
Dudley led that crew with 25 on 9-for-15 shooting, with perhaps his biggest bucket coming after the Lakers cut the lead to 10 with 4:39 left when he nailed a jumper in Gasol’s face off a switch. It was just his third isolation bucket of the season, per mySynergySports, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
“For this team to be successful we’ve got to have four or five guys in double figures, it can’t just be two or three guys,” said Dudley, noting Nash and Gortat always get theirs but they need help. “Early on I had it going. I think we all just fed off each other.”
In all the Suns played like a playoff team tonight in front of a playoff crowd, particularly during the first quarter that for my money was their best 12 minutes of the season. If they could bottle that performance there’s no telling the kind of damage they could do with tonight starting a stretch of 12 of 14 home games.
Gentry was asked if he ever watches a quarter like that and says to himself, “Why can’t we do that all the time?”
His response: “Every single night. Me and 29 other coaches.”
Yet more often Gentry is resigned to discussing blown leads or defensive rebounding or turnovers or miserable bench play or any of the myriad topics he has often discussed in postgame interviews this season with Phoenix still six games under .500 after this win.
“I think we’ve shown we can be good, we just have to kind of remind ourselves of the formula,” Hill said. “It’s coming out with energy, playing hard and competing. When we do that — we did it tonight — we’re really good, and when we don’t we’re really bad.”
The Suns have been really bad far more often than they’ve been really good, but at least for one night they followed Hill’s formula to earn the kind of win that must have reminded Phoenix’s faithful of better times.
- Gentry credited Rita Garvin, wife of vice chairman Sam Garvin, for pointing out that the Suns play well whenever he wears his glasses, as he did Sunday night. “I will never have a game where I will not wear my glasses anymore,” Gentry said. “I’m going to keep them on.”
- Hill on Kobe: “He just seems to get up for the Suns. I don’t know what the Suns did years back in the playoffs, but I wasn’t here then.”
- Gentry tightened up Phoenix’s rotation with Gortat playing 41:50, Nash 36:30, Hill 35:31 and Dudley 34:25. Markieff Morris was the only reserve to play over 14 minutes, Robin Lopez played just five and Josh Childress, Ronnie Price and Hakim Warrick all earned DNP-CDs. You think he wanted to win this game?
- Many Suns players pointed to the fact that the team committed just 11 turnovers after coughing it up 15 times in the first half alone on Friday night as the difference between the two games. … The Suns had lost four straight games to the Lakers, including three in a row at home in the regular season. … With eight games of at least 14 assists, Nash has twice the number of any other player. … Phoenix recorded a season-high-tying 21 fast-break points.