Trailing 55-51 after an uninspiring first half in which the ageless Marcus Camby waltzed through the lane for 18 rebounds, the Phoenix Suns knew they had 24 minutes left to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Turns out they only needed 12.
The Suns played their quarter of the season in the third, outscoring the Rockets 30-14 to take command of this game and ultimately charge right back into the playoff picture after holding off Houston, 112-105.
“We were very disappointed with the first half because we gave up a lot of offensive rebounds and lost a lot of hustle plays,” Suns guard Steve Nash told reporters. “We wanted to come out in the second half and make that right and give ourselves a chance to win. We were disappointed with our first half effort so we made up for it in the second half.”
Boy did they ever.
After going scoreless in the first half, Nash knocked down a trey to start the second and did not stop until he had himself an 18-point half. Two Time scored 10 of those points on 3-for-4 shooting while dishing three assists in the third.
After getting quite the tongue lashing for Camby’s first-half performance, which the Polish Machine disclosed on the Suns’ postgame show, Marcin Gortat dominated the third with eight points on 4-for-4 shooting and five boards.
Overall the Suns hit 10-of-18 shots, and if you take out Shannon Brown’s four misses the rest of the team shot 71.4 percent.
Meanwhile, the defense shut down Houston’s offense, limiting the Rockets to 26.1 percent shooting. Camby played the entire 12 minutes and did not grab a single board (he didn’t pull one down in the fourth either) and suddenly a four-point deficit became a 12-point lead.
“We came out in the third quarter, which is how we should have started the game and did a great job of establishing exactly what we wanted to do offensively, and then we did a great job defensively,” Gentry told reporters. “Our rotations were much better and because of that we got a lot of easy shots.”
Added Grant Hill, “We just came out with a sense of urgency in the third quarter. The starters and the bench played well and we just did what we had to do to get the win.”
And thus in one short quarter the Suns went from the chopping block to one game out of a playoff spot.
They also clinched the tiebreaker with the Rockets by virtue of their even season series record and the fact that Phoenix will win the next conference record tiebreaker if these teams end up in a dead heat.
The good news kept pouring in as the Hornets downed the Jazz behind 25 points from Eric Gordon, a result that catapulted the Suns back to ninth in the West.
Later on the Lakers outlasted the Nuggets, which means the Suns are just one game behind both the Rockets and the Nuggets with seven games to play. As tough as their schedule looks, five games will be at home and that means they are every bit in this race.
“Potentially massive day for Suns if Lakers win this,” John Hollinger tweeted before the Lakers won that. “Playoffs looking much more realistic than a couple hours ago.”
Hill returned to the Suns’ lineup and contributed despite understandably looking a bit rusty just two weeks out from arthroscopic knee surgery. He knocked down 2-of-7 shots but played his usual solid defense while tangibly leading on the floor as he always does.
Hill was healthy enough to play the final 17:36 (which could be why he missed a couple late free throws). That could not have been the plan, but he was going well and we all know Gentry wants him on the floor during crucial moments.
That’s exactly what the final minute turned out to be as the Suns never make anything easy. Houston spurted out to a 15-6 run to reduce Phoenix’s lead to seven on a Goran Dragic three with 2:44 left after the Suns led by 16 midway through the final quarter.
The Rockets had a chance to cut the lead down to two with a minute left but Courtney Lee’s three rimmed out before Jared Dudley delivered a long ball at the other end to seal this one with 36 ticks left.
Thanks in large part due to the third quarter outburst the starting lineup bounced back by outscoring Houston by eight and shooting 56.3 percent in 19 minutes together. The bench mob played nine minutes with Hill instead of Childress and won by five, according to the NBA’s stats tool.
In total, Friday the 13th was only unlucky for the teams directly ahead of Phoenix in the West. The Suns gained a game on their three closest opponents and a tiebreaker to boot. If they make the playoffs, we will look back on this day as a major turning point in the race.
The work is far from done with six of Phoenix’s final seven games coming against West playoff contenders, but the events of tonight keep the Suns in the thick of a wild race that’s shaping up to be as unpredictable as the first 59 games of the season were.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.