PHOENIX — The Western Conference is an unforgiving place.
Aside from a defensive hiccup against Minnesota, the Suns’ only other losses since the All-Star break have come at the hands of four of the five best teams in basketball, teams with a combined record of 163-84 — and yet after Tuesday’s 107-100 loss to the San Antonio Spurs the Suns now find themselves 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot in 10th place in the West.
Things do not get any easier with eight of their next 10 games on the road and 12 of their final 16 games against Western Conference teams currently ahead of them in the standings.
That is why it hurts so much to drop a game at home where they had been so good (10-2 in their previous 12) in a winnable game against one of the league’s hottest teams.
The Suns trailed by just one after three quarters, at which time they had knocked down 51.5 percent of their shots, but they could only hit a third of their attempts in an anemic final period in which the Spurs’ defense tightened up down the stretch like old times.
As the Suns attempted to make a comeback from 12 points down with just over four minutes to go, their offensive rebounding issue reared its ugly head again. Tim Duncan corralled one up nine with just under three minutes left in the contest and later Matt Bonner collected a board with a minute left and the Spurs up seven that effectively ended the game. Gentry stomped down the sideline fuming mad after that last critical board.
“It killed us,” Gentry said. “It’s kind of like we’ve done in the past and we haven’t done that in a while really where we’ve had good solid defensive possessions and then they’ve shot it and gotten it back. That’s really a little bit deflating when that happens. There were too many second shots, too many missed shots, too many rebounds. Down the stretch we gave up three straight offensive rebounds. You can’t do that against that team.”
After Nash carved the Spurs up for eight points and five assists in the first half, his back “just tightened up” in the second quarter and he struggled to get it loose down the stretch.
That really is no surprise as the Suns never could get on track in the fourth quarter either. Not just Nash but the entire team failed to record even a single assist in that decisive quarter, and no player other than Two Time hit more than one shot.
“I think we just didn’t play well enough,” Nash said. “We got close, we kept ourselves in the game for a long time and couldn’t ever really get more than that five- or six-point lead and they came flying back and then the start of the fourth there they kind of got up there by nine and we couldn’t close back the distance. So, it’s a disappointing loss for us and we’ve got to pick it up tomorrow and try and get one.”
With Grant Hill out with right knee inflammation, Shannon Brown replaced him in the starting lineup and nearly shot the Suns to the upset. Brown scored a career-high 32 points on 11-for-18 shooting and 5-of-10 marksmanship from distance in a team-high 42 minutes.
Brown was blazing from the start as he scored 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting in the first quarter and never really stopped from there. Before tonight only Nash had a 30-point game for Phoenix this season.
“I definitely thought about (being in a zone) after my first couple shots, it wasn’t touching the rim, so I just felt like every time I got a good look I had to take it,” Brown said.
Added Nash, “Shannon was fantastic. He gave us a chance to win the game. He kept us in it. It was a terrific performance. We missed Grant obviously, but Shannon was fantastic in his absence. … We’ve come to expect that offense out of him.”
Brown’s monster game is all the more impressive considering the fact he did not even know he would be starting before the team’s pregame meeting when it was decided that Hill would not play.
Yet that hardly seemed to matter as Brown got in his groove and gave the Suns a chance to win on a night they received a combined nine points from Channing Frye and Jared Dudley and none from Markieff Morris or Michael Redd.
As the Suns continue this daunting stretch to end the season they understand the good news is that they can catch up in a hurry if they continue to only lose to the very top teams in basketball.
But time is running out and it must be a bit deflating to waste Brown’s career effort with their poor offensive showing down the stretch, even if this is exactly what San Antonio’s been doing to teams all year (and really all decade).
“Every game puts more pressure on us, no matter if it’s home or away,” Nash said. “We’ve got to find a way to get more and more games over .500 to catch up to the teams ahead of us. To do that we’re going to play a lot of good teams, we’ve got to play at a high level.”
- Tim Duncan once again hurt the Suns with a stellar game of 26 points and 11 rebounds on 11-for-16 shooting. Said Marcin Gortat of Duncan, “He’s like a wine, each year he’s better and better.” The Polish Hammer was pretty good himself in producing a 21-point, 14-rebound effort that marked his 12th 20-10 game of the season.
- Gentry on Hill’s status for tomorrow: “We’ll look at it again tomorrow and see where it is. If he feels good then he’ll play, if he doesn’t we’ll expect someone else to step in and do what Shannon did.”