PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns would be a pretty good team if they could convince themselves they trailed by double digits before the opening tip.
Instead despite a valiant effort in digging themselves out of an 18-point second-half deficit, their eighth double-digit deficit in nine games, the Suns ran out of gas in overtime of their 112-106 loss to the Chicago Bulls Wednesday night in US Airways Center.
“It takes too much out of you to fight back to come back, to be able to tie it up it takes so much out of you that in overtime it’s tough, it’s real tough,” P.J. Tucker said.
The Suns trailed 79-61 with three minutes left in the third and then 83-69 to start the fourth when a bench-dominant lineup of Tucker, Sebastian Telfair, Shannon Brown and Markieff Morris went to work along with Luis Scola, and nine minutes later a Bassy trey knotted the score at 93.
The Suns turned the game around by locking up the Bulls defensively and dominating the backboards with the kind of energy that typifies a unit featuring Tucker and Telfair.
Tucker outrebounded the Bulls on his own in a quarter in which the Suns won the battle of the glass by a margin of 13-4. Tucker scooped up four misses on the offensive end while the Suns as a team shot 52.0 percent and grabbed six offensive boards. He also held Luol Deng to three points in 10 minutes in the fourth after the swingman scored 16 on 6-for-11 shooting through three quarters.
“We locked up, got all our assignments,” Tucker said. “Everybody just looked at each other and said we were going to lock up and do what we had to do. We did it.”
Added Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, “Tucker was crushing us with the second shots.”
Boy, was he ever. Tucker flew around the court in the fourth like a player who never wants to return to Europe. He was crashing the boards hard, diving for loose balls and somehow coming up with rebounds in traffic over much bigger players.
He even scored the bucket that sent the game into overtime. After trailing by four with a minute left Brown converted a three-point play and Richard Hamilton split a pair of free throws to make it a 100-98 Bulls lead. Bassy then drove the length of the floor and lost the ball — where else? — right into the waiting arms of Tucker, who converted the tying layup with 9.4 ticks left.
“Yeah, that was exactly drawn for me to throw it up,” he said. “No, Bassy lost the handle a little bit and it just kind of fell in my hands.”
That play pretty much summed up the Suns’ fourth quarter, which also saw Brown (10) and Telfair (nine) combine for 19 points, two more than Chicago as a team.
It’s only human nature for a team to relax with a big lead, and the combination of that and the energy lineup the Suns played throughout most of the fourth quarter was the recipe for the comeback. There really is no quit in this team, but Phoenix has yet to play at this level throughout an entire game. Gentry keeps saying if the game is within a few points when the Suns rip off one of these runs, then they’ll really have something.
Could it be a case of a more talented opponent taking a big lead on the Suns and then letting up a bit, at which point the Suns outwork them to get back in the game? It’s hard to say exactly at this point, but whatever it is the Suns better figure it out soon.
“That seems to be our problem right now,” Telfair said. “We go through spurts where we just don’t play as well. We’ve got to get out of that funk because we’re not going to be able to do that on the road. You’re on the road, you get down 20, that’s game.”
Added Gentry, “These kind of losses hurt, but if we keep competing like this we’ll find a way to win games like this, games that we’re not supposed to win we’ll find a way to come away with a win in those situations.”
Gentry also noted that he’s still toying with his lineups trying to discover the perfect combinations to play throughout a game. The past few years we’ve gotten used to relatively set lineup patterns, yet this season only two lineups have played more than 16 minutes together and 20 different lineups have played at least five minutes.
One trend, per the NBA’s stats tool, is that Bassy-Tucker is a very good pairing. Of the 20 Suns duos to share the court for at least 80 minutes together, none are better than Bassy-Tucker. Small sample size aside, tell me you thought that would be the case nine games in. Not surprisingly, Bassy-Tucker is the best defensive pairing in this sample, yielding 99.3 points per 100 possessions compared to 106.4 for the team as a whole.
The small sample size police would probably require me to note this has occurred over just 93 minutes, yet tonight was only the latest example of how their energy can turn a game around.
The Suns also would not have come back without a monster game from Scola, who poured in a team-high 24 points on 12-for-22 shooting to go with 14 boards in 42:30. That’s even after fouling out a mere 40 seconds into overtime when Kirk Hinrich slid over to draw a charge that stymied the Suns’ offense. Michael Beasley was forced to return for the first time since the 4:02 mark of the third quarter, and the Suns scored one point in the first 3:43 of overtime.
“It was tough,” Gentry said of Scola fouling out. “Like I said, the guy just competes like crazy. He knows angles and he knows basketball. When we lost him he was playing so well offensively. We were kind of going through him and so when he fouled out it put us in a little bit of a tough situation, but that’s why you have guys on the roster. You have to have guys come in and step, up you really do.”
By that point, Markieff Morris had left the game with a lower back bruise suffered at the end of regulation (he’s day-to-day), paving the way for Beasley’s return.
Along with Brown, Beasley missed 11 of 15 shots and committed four turnovers to boot. The offense no longer flowed quite so well, and the Suns yielded more field goals in overtime than the fourth quarter (five to four). It might be unfair to pin all of this on the former No. 2 overall pick when perhaps other players were spent from the fourth-quarter run, yet the game noticeably changed when he entered.
However, with another major comeback the Suns are starting to solidify themselves as a plucky team that can be counted on to fall behind big quite often and keep coming hard.
That attitude can best be personified by Tucker and Telfair, two players who could be facing their last NBA chance this season despite being young enough to spend many more years in the league.
If they continue to play as hard as they did tonight, that possibility will soon sound ridiculous.
“I thought we played extremely hard,” Gentry said. “I love the fact that this team doesn’t give up. They won’t give up, they’ll keep working hard, they’ll try to get back in.”
The Suns played their first overtime game of the season tonight after going all of 2011-12 without one. … The Bulls improved to 7-1 against Phoenix since drafting Derrick Rose. … Telfair scored 17 points, his third such game since joining the Suns. … Scola recorded his second 20-10 game as a Sun and is averaging 19.0 and 10.7 over his last three. Not bad for an amnesty guy. … Morris suffered through another rough shooting night, missing 9 of 12 shots. He’s shooting 31.7 percent on the season, just better than Beasley’s 35.1 percent. Beasley has made more than half his shots only once all season, while Morris has yet to accomplish that feat. … Telfair flashed his athleticism tonight when he hurdled Nate Robinson while closing out before the diminutive Bulls guard drove to the cup.