PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns’ shooting was red hot. Their defense strengthened as Thursday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves wore on. They even dominated the boards for the first three quarters against a team with more length on the wings and beef on the interior than you could shake a extra-long beefstick at.
But it didn’t make things easy when the Suns turned the ball over 15 times by the end of the third, nor when they didn’t do anything to force the young Timberwolves into mistakes of their own. That changed in the fourth, when Minnesota turned it over five more times and the Suns outscored the upstart T-Wolves 27-21 to punch in a 104-95 victory in US Airways Center.
By the end of the night, the Suns had won the rebounding battle to the tune of 44-37 in a game that got gritty down the stretch. The mix of Channing Frye, Markieff Morris, Marcin Gortat and Robin Lopez kept the NBA’s second-leading rebounder, Kevin Love, frustrated throughout as he finished with a below-average 10 boards.
“I thought they did a good job of banging and that’s what they are — (Nikola) Pekovic and Love, that’s what they love to do is bang in there,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. “I thought Marsh (Gortat), and Robin and Channing and Markieff did a good job of banging back and trying to hold their ground with those guys.
“We also did a good job of stepping out and making contact before we went to rebound the basketball,” Gentry added. “So when we did, when they pushed us, there were some (foul) calls made that helped.”
Gortat added 17 points and Steve Nash put up 17 assists to lead Phoenix, but it was Grant Hill’s second half, 15-point explosion that made the difference offensively. Cross-matched against co-point guard Luke Ridnour, who started alongside point guard Ricky Rubio, Gentry called Hill’s number in the second half, helping the 39-year-old finish with a team-high 20 points.
“With him guarding Ridnour and then us in transition, it was hard for them to get back and for them to match up,” Gentry said. “We were going to try to see if we could post the ball and create double teams. I thought Grant did a good job of reading the situation and shooting over the top.”
The Timberwolves came out slow on their third game in three nights, while the Suns came out cold following a week off. Neither squad could take advantage of first quarter miscues as the Timberwolves led just 23-22 despite 55-plus shooting percentages from both teams.
After the teams turned the ball a combined 13 times in the first quarter, Minnesota only recorded a single mishap in the next two to lead for most of the way despite Phoenix’s 56.9 percentage shooting through three quarters.
Minnesota opened up a 44-34 lead with 3:44 left in the first half and didn’t turn the ball over once in the second quarter, though Phoenix, behind its solid shooting, hung within five with a 51-46 deficit by halftime.
Meanwhile, Love and Pekovic put the Suns in a world of hurt as far as foul trouble was concerned. By halftime, Frye, Morris and Lopez had three fouls apiece, forcing formerly-pine riding power forward Hakim Warrick into eight minutes of action in the first half.
The quick whistles, however, helped Phoenix as the game wore on.
Hill said the Suns used it to their advantage, making sure to attack the Timberwolves in the tightly-officiated game that saw 53 combined free throws and 47 personal fouls called. Before it was over, both Love and Rubio and thrown their arms up several times on iffy foul calls.
“When officials are calling it close, you can’t be physical,” Hill said. “The thing that was happening was they were calling it against us, but you know, we got to take advantage of that, too. Attack, get to the basket. Once we did adjust and adapted, we just came out and had good energy.”
Hill, especially, took advantage, leading Phoenix back from its 10-point deficit.
Having led only once through the first 34 minutes of the game, Phoenix climbed back to take a 73-72 lead on a fast break dunk from Shannon Brown and went on to lead 77-74 before the final stanza.
“It just got out of control and the wheels came off,” Love said of the third quarter. “Third game in three nights for all these guys and for me being sick, I just think we had tired legs down the stretch and it caught up to us. They hit big shots and had some calls go their way, and that’s what ultimately decided the game because it came down to the last six minutes and that was really it.”
Much of the successful run to mount a Suns comeback — and to create a cushion in the fourth — was executed by the bench. They ended the evening with 28 points to help out the five starters, all of whom finished with double-digit scoring.
Brown scored 12 on 6-for-11 shooting, while Lopez recorded six boards and two blocks while he and Morris made the most of their nine combined personal fouls on the defensive end.
As a team, the Suns held the Timberwolves to 39.5 percent shooting and hit 53.2 percent themselves.
Gentry was especially pleased about the rebounding margin against Rick Adelman’s physical team. Even giving up 16 second-chance points, he said, wasn’t so bad considering the second-chance defense (5-of-13 shooting for Minnesota) wasn’t too shabby either.
But of course the Suns still sit at 15-20, well out of the playoff race. The hard-fought victory came with a warning from the Suns’ two-time MVP and captain.
“Hopefully we take this win and keep building on it,” Nash said. “We definitely have to keep improving but while we do that, we have to put some wins together. We have to make up some ground here.”