PHOENIX — Ever since training camp head coach Alvin Gentry has preached that the Suns must improve enough defensively to survive cold shooting nights.
The Suns are four games below .500 because that hasn’t happened often enough this season, but on Friday night their defense lifted Phoenix to an 81-78 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers despite an anemic offensive first half on a night that Steve Nash physically “didn’t have it,” as he put it.
“Grinded it out, we couldn’t make a shot early on,” Gentry said. “We played pretty good offense in the third quarter, but I just thought our defense is what rescued us.
“We just couldn’t get the ball in the basket but I thought we were doing everything we needed to do defensively to stay in the game.”
The Suns limited the NBA’s fifth-most efficient offense to a mere 78 points on 36.8 percent shooting. That includes an opponent season low of 14 points in the second quarter, a period won by the Suns even after scoring a mere five points in the first seven minutes.
That defensive effort allowed Phoenix to win a game in which the squad shot a stone cold 35.0 percent, the lowest field-goal percentage in a Suns win since they beat Cleveland on Nov. 1, 2002, on 33.3 percent marksmanship.
They have also now twice beaten a team when shooting below 37.0 percent this season after compiling no such wins during the past seven years (which, of course, is because the Suns rarely ever shot this poorly the rest of the Nash era).
Last season when the Suns battled the Clippers, Grant Hill found himself matched up against Blake Griffin, but tonight Gentry put him on Chris Paul — the kind of matchup switch few players in this league can handle.
Hill helped limit CP3 to 16 points and five assists on 6-for-15 shooting. Meanwhile, Channing Frye played perhaps the best game in NBA history in which the player in question clanked his way to a 2-for-18 shooting performance. That’s because Frye also tallied 14 rebounds and played tough enough defense to force Griffin into a 6-for-19 shooting night.
“I think Channing did a tremendous job today on Blake Griffin,” Marcin Gortat said. “We made him a jump shooter, so he wasn’t able to really do his dunks and drives to the basket. He did a really good job.”
Indeed Griffin, the NBA’s dunk leader, was held without a single smash tonight while his dunk brother DeAndre Jordan was limited to just one (they average more than five dunks a game combined).
As is the case with most teams, Dudley said the Suns’ game plan was to keep Griffin away from the rim, and surprisingly enough it worked.
“Channing was great,” Nash said. “He battled, he hustled, he took a lot of contact. He made it tough on him. It was key for us to try to make it difficult for him.”
That defensive effort allowed the Suns to beat a good team on a night when Nash wasn’t his usual All-Star self for physical reasons.
Two Time made just 1-of-4 shots for six points and racked up more turnovers (seven) than assists (six). Two late Nash turnovers keyed a 7-0 Clippers run that allowed Los Angeles to tie the game at 70 with four minutes remaining. Also, the former MVP has only once recorded fewer assists all season (way back on the second game of the year, when he also didn’t feel right).
“Today I felt like I was in a car wreck yesterday,” Nash said. “I just tried to have a great attitude and just be there for my team and hang in there and not get down.”
It’s no surprise that the Suns were pretty horrid offensively on a night when Nash wasn’t right considering what he means to that side of the ball.
It’s once again a testament to the defense that Phoenix could win a game without Nash directing the offense like the maestro he is, especially on a night when the power forwards combined to shoot 3-for-26 (the rest of the team by comparison wasn’t so bad at 48 percent).
Based on how lethargic the Clippers seemed to play, though, I don’t think we can count on Phoenix beating many good teams without Nash playing at his optimum level.
The Suns finally broke out of their doldrums during their 31-point third quarter outburst (at least for this game when the Suns scored 17, 15 and 18 in the other three quarters, this was an outburst).
Hill said the team was actually encouraged going into halftime because the players felt they shot horribly on good looks but that their luck was bound to change in the third quarter, as ended up being the case.
Gentry echoed that thought, saying the strong third quarter was just a case of the Suns making shots they missed in the first half.
“It’s just that simple really,” he said. “We had the same shots that we had in the first couple of quarters. We also picked up the pace of the game a little bit, too, and when we play with pace we seem to be able to catch the ball in rhythm a little bit more and shoot the basketball.”
After overcoming double-digit deficits in consecutive games against good teams, the Suns have now won four of five as they seek to make one last playoff push before the trade deadline.
The Suns surely are not good enough defensively to string together too many more wins in this fashion as if they were the Boston Celtics, but Gentry had no issue with winning one of the uglier NBA games you will see.
“It wasn’t a real pretty game, but I don’t really care,” he said. “We have to learn to grind out games and be able to win scoring 81 points.”
- Gentry opened his presser with this great quip: “My only reference to Jeremy Lin is this right here. I just told Channing Frye he is no Jeremy Lin, and by that I mean the last foul that he made. He is no Harvard grad on that one.” Frye fouled Griffin on a made basket in the final seconds with Phoenix leading by six at the time.
- Before the game, Gentry downplayed Phoenix’s victory on the boards over Minnesota, saying it’s just one game. He wanted to see what his squad could do against another excellent rebounding club in the Clippers. Mission accomplished as the Suns outboarded Los Angeles 52-46, led by Frye and Gortat both with 14. “I think we killed them on the glass,” Gortat said.
- The Suns improved to 68-1 in franchise history when holding opponents below 80 points. They have already done so four times this season, a mark they have not exceeded since 2002-03. … The Suns have won 12 of 13 against the Clippers, including nine in a row at home … Gentry is 10-1 as the Suns’ head coach against his former team. … One last Gentry joke: “We might bring Clipper Darrell in, we’ll bring him in on a 10-day and take a look.”