PHOENIX — Tonight we learned what happens when a team in the midst of a massive tank job meets a team in desperate need of a win to vault into one of the top eight sought-after spots in the Western Conference.
With Nicolas Batum and Raymond Felton joining LaMarcus Aldridge on the list of unavailable Portland players, the Suns creamed the Tank Trail Blazers 125-107 behind a season-best 60 percent shooting in a game that was never particularly close save for a Portland run midway through the second.
After Denver beat Houston earlier in the evening, that meant what was unthinkable at the All-Star break was now a reality: the Suns would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.
That ultimately may end up being the season’s biggest accomplishment being that they are tied for eighth with the Rockets (and own the tiebreaker) and lead the Jazz by a mere half game after Utah knocked off Dallas in triple overtime.
If the season ended today we’d be headed for another Suns-Spurs war in the 1-8 series, but we are faaaaaar from that point.
Even if the Rockets (who have lost four in a row) continue to crumble, the Jazz play these same Blazers twice, Orlando without Dwight and the Suns at home. The Suns will win any potential three-way tie with the Rockets and the Jazz, but at this point the Suns know they can only enjoy this tonight before preparing for one heck of a stretch run.
“People had us for dead beginning of the season, middle of the season, All-Star break,” Jared Dudley said. “And we’ve worked our butts off, we’ve played through it, guys have learned their roles and I think we’re ready to do it.”
Added Steve Nash, “We have a great opportunity here. If we win out we’re in.”
That is true after the Suns took care of business in a game they just couldn’t blow against a Blazers defense that provided hardly any resistance, particularly against the Suns’ starters.
Despite not even playing a second in the fourth quarter, four Suns starters scored between 16-20 points and the fifth, Nash, dished 13 assists. Collectively they shot 68 percent and everyone but Channing Frye (plus 18) recorded plus/minuses between plus 23-26.
According to the NBA’s advanced stats tool, the Suns’ starters logged 23 minutes together and outscored the Blazers 68-50 in that time. Extrapolated to a full game that’s roughly a 136-100 blowout.
This unit scored at a pace of 150.8 points per 100 possessions and hit 72.5 percent of its shots when the five starters shared the floor. Again, this is in practically an entire half of basketball that didn’t include the fourth quarter’s garbage time.
“Offensively, we’re playing at a high level,” Dudley said after his team came a fourth-quarter bucket shy of posting 30 points in every quarter. “When we play unselfish and move the ball like we did and shoot the ball from three, it’s hard to beat us. Sometimes we can get stagnant and force shots, but tonight we didn’t do that. And we’re going to need to play that way these last five games.”
Added Shannon Brown, “When we’re playing the game the right way, there’s not too many teams that can stick with us, especially at the pace that we play.”
After the bench often was the unit making the big runs on the road trip, it was nice to see the starters really throttle an opposing group, especially without injured forward Grant Hill.
Of course, the Blazers started luminaries such as Luke Babbitt (who scored a career-high 18 points), Jonny Flynn and Joel Przybilla so it’s not like the Suns did this against the Thunder, but it’s impressive to score that efficiently for the equivalent of a half of basketball against any NBA team.
Overall the game followed a fairly predictable script. The Suns jumped out to an early double-digit lead and watched the Blazers make a run to cut the lead to three midway through the second quarter. Then the Suns bludgeoned them with a 21-9 spurt that featured 12 from an interior-minded Frye to go up 13 at the break. Portland made a mini-run to get the lead down to single digits early in the second half before a 14-4 Suns run buried them
“It’s a team that was sitting guys, that had nothing to play for right now,” Dudley said. “We knew we had to handle business, you have to put them away early. The game kind of went how you expected: take a lead, they make a little run and second half run away with it.”
The Suns ensured the fourth quarter was a yawn fest and improved to 8-0 against sub-.500 teams after the All-Star break in their final such game of the season. Along with a West-best 11-2 home mark since the break, that’s why the Suns suddenly control their own destiny in the playoff race.
It’s kind of funny because losing to bad teams at home is the biggest reason the Suns dug themselves a 12-19 hole in the first place yet they’ve managed to fight all the way back by completely rectifying those issues.
“We were pretty much out of it around the All-Star break and we found a way to claw back in,” Nash said.
Yes the Suns have, and if they continue to defend their home court with this same kind of ferocity they will earn at least two more additional home games.
- Nash on his health: “I felt pretty good. I can’t complain. I got through the game without any setbacks. I wasn’t maybe 100 percent, but I got through the game and I’m just happy that I can produce.”
- With the starters sitting the entire fourth, only Brown played 30 minutes (and right on the nose at that). Nash, meanwhile, was limited to 27:25. “All the rest we can get we take because we play three games in the next four days,” Gentry said. “We were kind of determined not to have to stick [Nash] back in there. We were going to ride those guys until the end.”
- KTAR’s Jon Bloom overheard Blazers guard Jamal Crawford telling Gentry and Suns announcer Eddie Johnson that he “needs to be here in Phoenix” with Portland teammates nearby. It’s hard to know the exact context of the comment near the end of an ugly blowout but it bears watching nonetheless.
- Gentry on the game: “We did what we had to do, which was good. I thought that from start to finish we were pretty good. We had some lapses in a few areas where we lost a little bit of focus, but I thought for the most part we were pretty good.”
- These teams just don’t play any close games. The Suns previously bashed the Blazers by 25 and were eviscerated in Portland by 38.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.