PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns have discovered a winning formula to open the second half of the season: fall behind by double digits early but hold the opposition below 40 percent shooting and win the rebounding battle to prevail in the end.
For the third straight game the Suns did just that in their 96-88 victory over the Sacramento Kings, a win that buoyed them to a three-game winning streak four days into the second half after doing that just once the entire inconsistent first half.
“We’ve still got a huge mountain to climb, but it’s a good start for us,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “I thought we played really good basketball. I thought we played tough-minded basketball. Defensively that’s been kind of the difference.”
The Suns are still a long way from being back in the playoff race as they sit 3 1/2 games out in 12th place in the West, but they are finally taking care of home games, coming from behind and winning with defense and rebounding.
In fact they have now won five of six home games and are a Golden State toe stub away from a six-game winning streak and real momentum heading into the rest of this daunting schedule after entering this stretch with an awful 5-8 home mark.
Although the offense these past three games has looked “rusty” early on, as Steve Nash put it, the defense has allowed Phoenix to weather those droughts.
Tonight that meant holding Isaiah Thomas to eight points on 3-for-13 shooting as well as limiting Kings stars DeMarcus Cousins (16 on 7-for-20) and Tyreke Evans (17 on 8-for-18).
Gentry lauded the work his assistants did on that end during the practices after the break, saying they have done a nice job “of putting us in a situation where our guys believe in what we’re doing.”
In addition, the Suns feel the biggest key to their defensive success of late has come down to securing a healthy portion of defensive rebounds after being so porous in this area to start the season.
The Suns outrebounded Sacramento, 53-49, in tonight’s game as Cousins pulled down his usual 14 boards but everyone else was held in check. On the flip side, Marcin Gortat (17) and Channing Frye (10) cleaned the glass for Phoenix.
“Our defense has been pretty solid for most of the year, we just haven’t been able to come up with a good percentage of rebounding at the defensive end,” Nash said. “I feel like the last three games we’ve done a much better job rebounding and closing out possessions, and it gives us a good chance to win.”
Rebounding is an interesting topic to explore because it often comes down to positioning and effort, not to mention sheer size.
The Suns have been an abysmal rebounding team the last two seasons largely due to their lack of size, so I asked Nash why he thinks they have strung together three straight solid boarding efforts in a row.
“I don’t think it’s natural for our personnel so we have to make an extra effort,” Two Time said. “ Some nights we’re just going to lose that battle, but we’ve done a great job of trying to fight for it these last three games, and hopefully we keep that up.”
The Suns also continued their second-half prowess tonight, as Phoenix has outscored its opponents by 11.2 points the past three second halves while limiting their opponents to 36.2 percent shooting. Tonight the Kings hit just one-third of their second-half attempts while Phoenix used a 15-3 spurt to open the fourth quarter to win going away.
The Suns have now overcome double-digit deficits in three straight games for the first time since November 2002 and they’ve held three consecutive opponents under 40 percent shooting for the first time since January 2008.
“It feels good and definitely we made a plan, we said that we want to get those three wins and now we have them, so we have to keep going,” Gortat said. “We’ve got a great rhythm right now.”
Now the question is whether the Suns have finally turned the corner or whether they were able to get by without their fastball on offense because they faced two tired squads in Minnesota and the Clippers as well as bad team in Sacramento.
We will find out soon as after a trip to conference-leading Oklahoma City, the Suns play six of their next seven in Phoenix, with all but one of those games coming against a Western Conference playoff contender.
If the Suns can win, say, five of those six home games just as they won five of these previous six then all of a sudden they’re right around .500 and can at least start peering over at the playoff teams from their spot in the standings.
This run is also happening just as the Suns will have to make their final decision on whether or not to trade Steve Nash. All along I’ve felt like this only could happen if Phoenix was firmly out of the playoff discussion, at which time the front office could approach him about the possibility of seriously considering offers.
If the Suns start to finally click and move up the standings, I don’t see how that necessary change of events will occur.
But that’s not what the players and coaches are thinking about after this one. Instead they are celebrating really the first time all season that Phoenix can legitimately say it’s gotten on a roll behind a productive defense, solid rebounding and an offense that’s turned it on (relatively speaking) in the second halves of games.
Now the question is whether the Suns are due for the letdown they have suffered after every previous mini-run.
“If we have any chance of getting back in the playoff picture we have to win these games and give ourselves a chance to get back in there and get to .500 and see what we can do from there,” Nash said. “Hopefully we can take care of the games we’re supposed to win and take care of home court and then try to steal a couple.”
- Nash said he “felt a lot better” tonight after struggling through Friday’s game. “I think just the inactivity,” he said. “Going from my body’s used to playing and contact, but after the seven days off that first game back was a shock to the system and the next day I really felt it. The seven days off really messed me up.”
- Gentry credited Shannon Brown for “giving us a little bit of separation” as he scored a bench-high 13 points, including seven during Phoenix’s late 15-3 run.
- Gortat joked that he only played 30 minutes because Gentry “kind of sniffed out that I was getting close to our 20 boards and he didn’t really want me to shoot the three, so that’s why he put me on the bench.” Gortat has said Gentry will let him shoot a trey if he pulls down 20 boards in a game.
- The Suns have now won three in a row when trailing at halftime and are 5-5 in their last 10 such games after dropping their first 12 when behind at the intermission. … The Suns have won their first three games after the break three times in Gentry’s four seasons, a feat only accomplished three times in the previous 18 years. … After their power forwards combined to shoot 3-for-26 on Friday, Channing Frye and Markieff Morris made just 3-of-19 shots tonight, with Morris missing all seven of his attempts. … The Suns have won as many home games in their last six contests as they did in their first 13 home dates.