PHOENIX — For five consecutive games in US Airways Center, the Phoenix Suns looked like the 1985-86 Boston Celtics.
As the Western Conference hierarchy continued to take form Phoenix worked its way into the playoff picture and won games by way of crisp rotations, hard closeouts, solid interior defense, and relentless rebounding.
Over the course of their first five home contests following the All-Star break — all wins — the Suns allowed 89.2 points per game while holding opponents to 40.9 percent shooting from the field and 28.2 percent from three.
During that stretch they out-rebounded opponents 240 to 205, yielding an average differential of 7.0 caroms per game.
To put those numbers in perspective, Phoenix’s defensive field goal percentage, defensive 3-point field goal percentage, and rebounding differentials during those five games would all currently lead the NBA.
On Monday evening in US Airways Center, however, that Suns defense disappeared. Kevin Love and the Minnesota Timberwolves had their way with the Suns as they shot 56.2 percent from the field and made 14-of-22 triples en route to a 127-124 victory.
“We did a poor job defensively to say the least,” said Suns guard Jared Dudley, who led the Suns with 28 points and nine rebounds on 10-of-15 shooting. “We did a bad job of rebounding, pick and roll coverage we weren’t crisp at all and they made you pay.”
Kevin Love went for 30 points and five 3-pointers, Nikola Pekovic scored 24 points on 11-for-17 shooting and the Minnesota bench scored 52 points — 40 in the first half — to snap the Suns’ five-game home winning streak.
Despite the poor defense the Suns were able to hang around thanks to Dudley’s big night, 25 points, 10 assists and no turnovers from Steve Nash, and 18 points on 7-for-11 shooting from Channing Frye. Phoenix shot 51.7 percent from the field, 9-for-21 from the land of plenty, turned the ball over only seven times, got to the line 23 times and scored a season-high 124 points.
Phoenix even held a 120-119 lead with 2:20 remaining. But thanks to a Luke Ridnour runner and clutch free throws the Timberwolves surged ahead to lead 125-122. Dudley missed a wide open 3-pointer out of a timeout with 17 seconds left, Marcin Gortat misfired on two crucial free throws and the Wolves held off the Suns in crunch time.
“We played our best offensive game, if not one of our best offensive games this year and had chances, myself the three to tie it,” Dudley said. “We just couldn’t get it done.”
Added Nash: “They just made more plays than we did in the end.”
While the Suns didn’t come up with the big plays down the stretch, ultimately it was Phoenix’s non-existent defense that led to defeat. Gortat and the Suns’ front line allowed Pekovic to score 15 points on 7-for-9 shooting in the first quarter, setting the tone for what would be a dominant performance by the Minnesota frontcourt.
“Pekovic really kind of took control of the game early,” said Suns coach Alvin Gentry.
The Timberwolves’ big man dominated Gortat early and often, which led the Polish Hammer, who scored only eight points and grabbed four rebounds in 19 minutes while battling foul trouble, to admit, “I just wasn’t ready to play.”
Pekovic kickstarted Minnesota and the bench took it from there as the combination of Michael Beasley (15), Wayne Ellington (12), and Derrick Williams (12) combined to score 39 points in the first half to give the Wolves a 63-56 halftime lead.
Love, on the other hand, registered only seven points and four rebounds in the first half. But when the third quarter rolled around, the NBA’s top power forward caught fire. He scored 10 points in the third quarter and 13 in the fourth as he spread out the Suns defense and gave them no chance to recover.
“They have the best power forward in the league. I mean Kevin Love is just a tremendous player and we can’t let him do all of these things on the floor,” Gortat said. “We have to make adjustments when he starts hitting threes and starts scoring and we didn’t do that. That is one of the reasons why we lost the game.”
While Love shot 5-for-9 from distance, Ellington, Beasley and Williams also combined to shoot 8-for-10 from the land of plenty and the once-stellar Suns defense had no answers.
“It’s been a while since we’ve had a team shoot 56 percent. I don’t even know if it’s happened this year. We can’t do that,” Gentry said. “I just thought altogether we just weren’t quite there as far as rotations. We were half a step late or we missed a rotation altogether and these guys are very good offensively.”
With the loss the Suns move to 19-22 on the season and missed a golden opportunity to move into a tie with Portland for 10th place in the Western Conference. Phoenix would have also been only one game behind eighth-place Houston in the loss column and percentage points behind Minnesota.
Instead, the Phoenix defense couldn’t sustain its play and the Suns find themselves in a must-win situation against 10th place Utah on Wednesday in US Airways Center.
“They played well enough to beat us today and we have to go back to the drawing board, come back on Wednesday and beat Utah,” said Dudley, who added that his 3-point attempt was the best look he had all game.
- The Suns’ bench held up its end of the bargain on Monday, scoring 35 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. Although it took him 13 shots, Shannon Brown scored 11 points, grabbed five boards and dished out three assists. Markieff Morris also grabbed five rebounds in 20 minutes while Robin Lopez scored 10 points and hauled in three rebounds in 24 minutes. The most impressive of all was Sebastian Telfair, who scored 10 points in the fourth quarter, including a four-point play followed by a steal in the backcourt for a layup.
- The Suns lost for only the second time all season when Dudley leads the team in scoring. The team is now 6-2 in such situations. Monday was Dudley’s fifth 20-point game of the season and his sixth career scoring effort of 25 points or more.