A familiar script played out in Salt Lake City Saturday night, just as it had the night before. But unlike last night’s history-making comeback, Phoenix could not come all the way back, succumbing to the Utah Jazz, 95-84.
Down by 22 points late in the third quarter, the Suns went on a 19-2 run to cut the lead to five, but that was as close Phoenix would come. The Suns struggled to overcome some disappointing performances from their stars and simply did not have enough gas in the tank to work their comeback magic two nights in a row.
Coach Alvin Gentry, speaking to reporters, said, “We keep digging ourselves holes and then try to dig our way out of it, and you can’t do that, especially on the road. I don’t think we did a very good job of executing and we didn’t shoot the ball well at all. When the game was on the line we stopped them eight out of 10 times and we got one basket in the process. You can’t win playing that way; we have to do a better job of executing and finishing plays.”
Utah’s size was too much for the Suns throughout the game. Big Al Jefferson showed once again why he’s the most dominant post player in the Western Conference. He scored 27 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, and shot 60 percent from the floor. Jefferson’s 10 first-quarter points were a big reason why the Suns were down double digits early. It didn’t matter who the Suns threw at him, be it Gortat or Scola, Jefferson was able to get a great shot every time he caught the ball. When the Jazz needed to end their fourth-quarter drought, they went to Jefferson on three different possessions and came away with a bucket every time.
The Suns may have been able to weather Big Al’s big night if not for the rest of Utah’s talented frontcourt. Paul Millsap was almost as effective as Jefferson, scoring 18 points while grabbing 13 boards. Derrick Favors chipped in with 10 points and three blocks, including two on Gortat. Even Enes Kanter scored some impressive buckets inside. Ultimately, the stats tell the tale. The Suns were outrebounded 52-37. They gave up 52 points in the paint. Phoenix had no answer for the Jazz’s nightmare lineup of bigs.
The player most likely to be haunted by that nightmare is undoubtedly Marcin Gortat. In a performance that was very reminiscent of last season’s playoffs-or-bust game against Utah, Gortat crumbled once again against the size and athleticism of the Jazz. Marcin was 0-for-6 from the field and played only 30 minutes. He was glued to the bench as Phoenix mounted its furious yet star-crossed comeback attempt. Gortat has been impressively assertive on both ends this season, but he still has the propensity to have no-show games like this one, especially when facing tough, physical competition.
Another Suns’ player who was basically a no-show was Michael Beasley. Though he made some good plays during the Suns’ late-game run, he looked lost in the first half. Every time Michael caught the ball, he was 25 feet from the basket. Instead of penetrating, he took out of rhythm jump shots off. It’s a testament to the depth and resolve of Phoenix’s roster that the score was close considering the duo of Beasley and Gortat made only three field goals.
The Suns’ incredible resolve came from their crunch-time lineup of Jared Dudley, Goran Dragic, Sebastian Telfair, P.J. Tucker, and Luis Scola. This group held Utah completely scoreless for six minutes of the fourth quarter. They negated Utah’s massive size advantage by pushing the ball up the floor and making the big fellas gasp for air. If there is any positive to be taken from this game for Phoenix, it’s that this lineup is very dependable and isn’t afraid of anything.
This was Jared Dudley’s best game of the season. He scored 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting and he, for the first time this year, looked like Old Jared. He was amped and aggressive on defense. He was confident and mobile on offense. He hit 2-of-3 from downtown, and got several easy buckets by moving without the ball. He even got his first dunk of the year. Despite the loss, Dudley should be able to build on this performance as the Suns will definitely need more games like this from him.
Also impressive was Sebastian Telfair. Had the Suns completed another big comeback win, the headline for this recap would have been: “From Bassy to classy.” It is clear now that Sebastian is the Suns’ most unflappable player. He is never afraid of the moment and is quickly becoming a reliable scorer/energy player off the bench. After an offseason in which it was unclear what his role would be this season, the Suns must count themselves lucky to have Bassy. The combo of he and Dragic in the backcourt is becoming a staple of the Suns’ rotation because their speed, scoring, and distributing abilities are incredibly hard for any opponents’ guards to handle. They’re reminiscent of Nash and Dragic playing together. In this game, Bassy and Goran were able to finish more effectively at the rim than Gortat because of their speed and determination.
The Suns’ effort over the final 14 minutes was valiant, but the Jazz simply had too much going for them. Their home crowd is incredibly loud and considered one of if not the best in the NBA. The Jazz are a lot like the Seattle Seahawks actually. They are average on the road (the Jazz are 0-4 on the road this year.) But at home, they look like championship contenders. Whether through luck, effort, or both, Utah came up with every loose ball in this game. They also scored as the shot clock expired at least four different times. These are close plays that turn the momentum of a game. The Jazz made the plays, and the Suns did not. Utah was the more disciplined team by far, and that paid off for them in the end.
Impressively, the Jazz won without their leading scorer, Mo Williams, who is suffering from a groin injury. If Utah had gotten any decent guard play on either end of the floor, this game would have been a rout. Utah had no one to guard Goran Dragic, who followed up last night’s strong performance, with 13 points and six assists in 39 minutes. It would have been more, but Dragic did not get to the free throw line at all. The exhaustion of this hard-fought back-to-back took quite a toll on him.
Dragic and the rest of the Suns have only one day to rest before the lighting-fast Denver Nuggets come to Phoenix Monday night. They’ll need to spend that time contemplating how and why they keep falling into these early holes and how they can come out faster moving forward.