On the first day of the NCAA Tournament, the Phoenix Suns pulled off Thursday’s biggest upset.
Missing Steve Nash and Grant Hill as they rested during this middle game of a three games in a row stretch, the Suns battled back from a 17-point deficit to beat the Clippers, 91-87.
The Suns played a gritty second half to slowly chip away at the Clippers’ lead before out executing them down the stretch with Shannon Brown playing the role of go-to guy.
It is surely debatable whether this is the Suns’ biggest win of the season, but it is without question the team’s most surprising victory featuring yet again another major comeback in a game in which Phoenix’s largest lead was the final margin.
The last time the Suns decided to sit Nash and Hill in this situation they were thrashed by the Denver Nuggets to highlight a pitiful stretch of three losses in three games. The Suns fought hard for some time in that one as well but just didn’t have the firepower to finish off the Nuggets; tonight was a different story although it kind of felt like the Suns were a double-digit seed trying to shock a more talented foe.
With the Detroit Pistons coming to town Friday night, the Suns can actually get back to .500 for the first time since they were 4–4 if they can close out this three games in a row stretch with three consecutive victories.
On a first day of the NCAA Tournament that featured few major upsets, the Suns played like the prototypical underdog, slowly chipping away at the lead and then making some big plays down the stretch to finish it off. The Suns even celebrated like a college team, with players pumping their fists and raising their arms in the air before a wild celebration (for NBA regular season standards at least) was set off on the Staples Center floor.
“It was a great win for us because obviously we didn’t have our two best players on the floor, and we didn’t have the guy who is the engine to our whole team,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “It was satisfying for the guys in the locker room because I think they wanted to prove that we are a good team all around, and that we can win games without Steve or Grant.”
Although I would not bet on the team the Suns put on the floor tonight on most evenings, it must be a big lift to their confidence to beat a good team on the road without their two captains.
Through three quarters the Clippers were shooting better than 50 percent while the Suns were down below 39 percent and Los Angeles was leading the battle of the boards by 10, making it a surprise the Suns trailed by just 11.
But the fourth quarter was a different story as the Suns outscored the Clippers 27–12, drilling half their shots while holding the Clippers to 21.4 percent shooting and winning the rebounding battle as well.
Nobody on the Clippers scored more than three points in the decisive period whereas Brown led the Suns with 10 points and three more guys scored at least eight.
I’m not sure this strategy would work on most nights, but the Suns let Brown go to work in crunch time and no Clipper answered. The former Laker took four shots and four free throws in the final four minutes, canning the go-ahead three-pointer with 2:25 on the clock as well as go-ahead free throws with 1:33 remaining after the Clippers scored their final points.
With less than four minutes to go, Gentry decided to go with the unorthodox strategy of playing Hack–a–Blake and Hack–A–Jordan. The Clippers’ big men ended up drilling four of their six foul shots, but the strategy seemed to work since those were the only points Los Angeles scored in the final four minutes of the game as it seemed to take them out of the rhythm of their offense.
Brown paced the Suns with 21, but it was wholly a team effort as eight other players scored between six and 12 points. That includes Robin Lopez — who was a team-high +18 and relegated Gortat to the bench in the fourth quarter — as well as Markieff Morris, who went for 10 and six along with a +12.
Don’t look now, but the Suns are suddenly within sight of the playoffs after running off this streak of nine wins in 12 games, as they finished the night tied for 10th with Utah just two games out of the loss column of the playoffs.
Perhaps most impressive is the fight the team has shown throughout the run in which they’ve made a comeback from double digits in nearly every game, each one bigger than the last. They had every excuse to give up in this one down by 17 without their leaders against a very good team on the road yet they still fought back to score another comeback.
It’s too early to tell if Phoenix will be the Cinderella of the NBA playoffs, but these past few weeks the Suns have extended March Madness beyond the college game.
- When the Blazers waived Greg Oden today my first thought was why don’t the Suns take a flyer on him and give their vaunted medical staff their stiffest test yet. There’s a reason the guy was drafted ahead of Kevin Durant (although it may not necessarily be a good reason), and if he ever gets healthy he still possesses the talent to make a difference. It seems like a win-win for Oden to sign with the Suns for the rest of the season and see if the medical staff can get him right before he becomes a free agent next season (in which case the Suns would probably have first dibs).
- So long as we’re on the topic of the Blazers, you guys know I have long been partial to Nicolas Batum as a free agent target. However, after the moves the Blazers made today it seems safe to think they will never let that restricted free agent leave their grasp (although that was likely always the case).
- Sebastian Telfair played a solid game in place of Nash, delivering seven points and eight assists to just one turnover in 34 minutes of play. He showed no fear defending Chris Paul and came up with the defensive play of the game when he stripped CP3 on a drive with 34 seconds remaining and the Suns nursing a two-point lead.
- As the Suns’ broadcast pointed out, Phoenix is now 18–2 when allowing 95 points or less and just 3–20 when allowing more. Talk about a magic number.
- Morris gave Blake Griffin a taste of his own medicine by throwing down a vicious dunk on the dunk champion himself: