PHOENIX — With memories of home losses to the Nets, Cavs, Raptors, Warriors and of course these very same New Orleans Hornets fresh in their minds, the Suns knew they absolutely have to take care of business tonight against the lowly, beat-up Hornets.
Against many teams the Suns would not be able to get away with sloppy play leading to 19 turnovers and 20 percent shooting from distance, but those things did not matter because Phoenix’s defense suffocated the Hornets once again on their fourth game in five days, as the Suns earned the 92-75 victory.
“I thought we got off to a good start and we did a good job,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “It was a game that we really needed to win. We played with a sense of purpose and a lot of energy.
“We should have won, and we won,” added Marcin Gortat.
Gortat essentially summed up the night in seven words, as even without Grant Hill the rested Suns had no business losing to a weary team at home that is so depleted that Lance Thomas started at power forward as if this were a Duke game.
New Orleans made a run on Phoenix’s bench to take a brief one-point lead midway through the second, but it was all Suns from there.
After the Hornets cut the lead to seven early in the third quarter, the Suns exploded on a 14-2 run to essentially put the game away with a quarter and a half to play as New Orleans never got closer than 12. Shannon Brown and Jared Dudley each scored six points during the decisive run and combined for 37 for the game.
“We always know the first five minutes of the second half are the most important, and we just wanted to come out, we wanted to hop on them,” Brown said. “We knew they were on the road trip and they played, this was like their fourth game in five days or something like that, so we knew they were a little bit tired; we just wanted to come out, jump on them and keep them down.”
Added Dudley, “We didn’t want to give them any hope and we did what we were supposed to in the third.”
The Suns did that with defense, as in the second half they limited the Hornets to 37.1 percent shooting and just 17 points in each of the third and fourth quarters.
Of course New Orleans is not exactly the SSOL Suns as they ranked third to last in offensive efficiency entering the night and were held to an offensive rating of 86.7 in a 93-78 loss to Phoenix earlier this season, but the Suns’ defensive performance was even better tonight as they limited the Hornets to just 83.3 per 100, their second-best defensive outing of the season behind only the Portland shutdown.
Phoenix has now held 17 opponents under 90 points after doing so eight times all of last season, and the team has won all but one of those games this year. The Suns also improved to 69-1 all-time when limiting an opponent to 80 points or fewer, the fifth such time they have pulled that trick this season and the most for any Suns team since 2002-03.
Balance ruled the day off offensively as five players scored in double digits, and a sixth dished 14 assists (Nash, of course, who only scored four points).
Dudley led all scorers with 21 points, taking command in the second half with 15 points in the final 24 minutes.
“I don’t think I’ve been as aggressive as I was today, but also it’s just the shots, it depends on the defense,” Dudley said. “San Antonio didn’t want to leave me, and this team helped on the roller. I have to be aggressive, especially with Grant gone.”
With Hill out, Josh Childress rejoined the rotation by making only his second appearance since Feb. 17, the night Phoenix dropped to 12-19. Chilly scored five points (including a wild buzzer-beating trey at the end of the third quarter) and collected six rebounds in just over 19 minutes.
Andres Alvarez from the Wages of Wins Journal has been screaming for Childress to get more playing time, and tonight we see why as Childress accumulated a crazy 0.595 WP48 for his efforts tonight.
The birthday boy Robin Lopez (now 24) also put in a solid night of work with 10 points, all in the second quarter to keep Phoenix ahead despite an otherwise weak quarter from the Suns. Lopez needed just two field goal attempts to score in double digits as he got to the line six times, causing Hornets head coach Monty Williams to say he had “a huge effect on the game.”
The Suns have much tougher games ahead, but after spending so much time fighting back to .500 to make up for their early-season toe stubs, Phoenix could not afford another one tonight.
They reached that .500 mark once again with the win and gained a game on Houston, who lost to the Pacers, to pull 1 1/2 games behind the Rockets for the final playoff spot in the West.
“It was a must win,” Dudley said. “This is a team that’s been struggling all year. We had to come out here and get the win. … Obviously it’s going to come down to the road games, so home games have to be a must win, it doesn’t matter who comes here.”
Now the Suns will embark on the road for seven of their next eight games, with the lone home date coming against the mighty Lakers. During this stretch they will face the four teams directly ahead of them in the standings, so by the end of it we will know whether their final homestand will have serious playoff implications or if that will be time to start counting lottery balls.
By winning tonight, the Suns kept themselves right in the thick of the hunt.
“We know that we are going to have to play well and we are going to have games that we have to win and a lot of those games are going to be on the road,” Gentry said. “For us, this is our first playoff game and we get on a plane and fly to Sacramento and that will be our next playoff game. I think that’s the way we have to approach it.”
- You know that debate about whether Kentucky could beat the Wizards? I don’t think they would have a chance against Washington, but who is to say they could not defeat the starting five of Jack-Belinelli-Aminu-Thomas-Smith? At full strength the Hornets would obliterate them, but I am not so sure in this depleted state on the road in their fourth game in five days.
- Nash accumulated double-digit assists and single-digit points for the sixth time in nine games. The Suns have gone 4-2 in those contests in which Two Time is averaging 13.2 assists and 4.2 shot attempts per game. … Brown has scored 16 or more in three of his past four starts.
- Today the Suns held their fourth annual Bounce with the Suns contest in which the fan who dribbles a basketball the longest will win a road trip with the team. As I write this, they are 16 hours into the contest (last year’s winner dribbled for almost 44 hours) and Mr. ORNG just dropped out. Here is some video from the minute I stopped by: