Marcin Gortat scored the first 10 points of the game and Markieff Morris had a career-high 22 points as the Phoenix Suns dominated the Cleveland Cavaliers 108-83 Sunday afternoon at Quicken Loans Arena. The Suns matched their season high margin of victory and shot 52 percent from the field as they finished their Eastern Conference road trip at 2-2.
Phoenix’s other 25-point win came back on Jan. 6 against Portland. Just like in that matchup, Phoenix jumped out to a big lead early against the Cavs and never looked back. Gortat scored the first five baskets of the game, four of them without a Cavalier anywhere in his vicinity. After a pair of Grant Hill free throws, the Suns led 12-0. That lead would shrink to 33-31 with eight minutes left in the second quarter before the Suns went on a 26-7 run leading into halftime.
Gortat had 22 points overall to go along with eight rebounds. Most of his points came from wide open rolls down the lane. From the outset, Cleveland was determined to double team the ball handler on every ball screen. This strategy, on its own, wasn’t a bad decision, but Cleveland’s other defenders rotated too slowly or forgot to rotate at all. This left Gortat free to dive toward the rim after setting his pick. He caught passes over the top from the original ball handler or from the wing after the ball had been swung out of the double team. He scored or earned free throws almost every time.
Cleveland’s television commentators, calling the game for NBA TV, chastised the Cavs throughout the entire game for this defensive failure even as Gortat was sitting on the bench with the game well in hand in the fourth quarter. It was certainly not Gortat’s finest game this season as he fumbled several entry passes and was pushed off the block by Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson on a few possessions.
What was on impressive display, however, was Gortat’s athleticism. His ability to catch passes from the perimeter and score without dribbling is one of the skills that sets him apart as a center in the league. The thing that has also impressed me about Marcin is his resiliency. After playing one of his worst games of the season against former teammate Dwight Howard and the Magic, Marcin has scored 45 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in the last two games. His ability to bounce back is one of the biggest reasons the Suns won the final two games of this road trip and are above .500 once again.
When Gortat was on the bench, it was the Markieff Morris show. Markieff’s career high came on 9-for-12 shooting. Having been in a funk with his jumper over the last few games, Morris took the ball to the basket early and often using his athleticism and strength to score against the against the Cavaliers’ front line. Once he established his inside game, Markieff found himself with lots of airspace beyond the arc, where he connected on two of his three attempts. Matched up primarily against Cleveland’s second unit, Morris looked nearly unstoppable in the second and fourth quarters. Moving forward, Morris should definitely attempt to utilize this approach more often. He is a strong presence in the paint, and the more he decides to let his post play and dribble penetration set up his outside shot, the more successful he and the Suns will be.
Overall, Phoenix scored 50 points in the paint — one of their more dominating performances of the season. They also dished out 31 assists and turned the ball over only 11 times. The Cavs defense was in complete disarray and had no answer for Gortat, Morris, and Channing Frye. One of the most telling aspects of Cleveland’s defensive issues was the number of possessions where Kyrie Irving ended up guarding Gortat or Frye. Switching screens and rotating quickly are keys to playing defense in the NBA, and it’s clear the Cavs still have some work to do in these areas.
As the Cavaliers scrambled to rotate to Suns in the paint after their big first half, Phoenix got hot from the perimeter and began to knock down jump shots. The Suns hit eight jumpers in the third quarter alone for 19 of their 26 points in the period. Those jump shots more than Phoenix’s first half domination in the paint are what appeared to break the Cavaliers spirit and ensure the Suns’ starters wouldn’t be needed for the fourth quarter.
The reserve unit of Robin Lopez, Markieff Morris, Michael Redd, Shannon Brown, and Sebastian Telfair played nearly the entire fourth quarter together — providing the starters with some much needed rest after four straight games on the road. The bench scored exactly half of Phoenix’s total points. Partly this is due to the extended minutes they played, but mostly this can be attributed to their improved cohesion as a unit. As the Suns make a playoff push with 17 games left in the year, the reserves seem to have firmly established their roles and are playing exceptionally well.
This particular performance having come against a lottery bound team from the East begs caution before making assumptions about the remainder of the season, but if the Suns can get this level of intensity and efficiency on both ends of the floor from their bench the rest of the way, they have just as good a shot as anyone to grab the eighth and final playoff spot.
Defensively, the Suns played as well in this game as they have all year. They held the Cavs to 38 percent shooting from the field and 25 percent from beyond the arc. Phoenix came up with 11 steals and forced 22 turnovers. The Suns ran off of those turnovers, getting 17 fast-break points and providing several flashbacks to the SSOL era. The Suns challenged shooters and got into passing lanes. They frustrated the Cleveland offense for the entire 48 minutes.
The only non-stellar features of Phoenix’s defensive performance were the 13 offensive rebounds given up and Kyrie Irving’s constant penetration. With Grant Hill occupied elsewhere, Steve Nash needed a consistent double team to help him stay in front of Irving. Kyrie was impressive in his ability to split that double and get to the rim. There is little doubt that Kyrie Irving is one of the quickest players with the ball in his hands in the NBA.
Coach Alvin Gentry told Suns.com, “We did a good job on Kyrie. The guy ends up with 16 (points), six (rebounds) and four assists and we talk about what a good job we did on him. That’s a testament to the kind of player that he is because that is doing a good job on him.”
The only other Cleveland performance of note was that of new Cavalier and former Arizona Wildcat Luke Walton, who hit three of his four shots in his first extended minutes with the team.
This win is meaningful for the Suns. “We owed it to ourselves to have a better performance,” Steve Nash told Suns.com. “(Cleveland) got us at home. We’ve clawed back into the playoff picture and we had to try and get one here.” Nash had only four points, but dished out 13 assists in just 29 minutes.
Phoenix is back above .500 after dropping two games to Eastern Conference powerhouses Miami and Orlando. Though their schedule will only get harder from here, the Suns should carry the confidence gained from this decisive victory back to Phoenix and use it as a foundation for a strong finish to the season.