With just under two minutes to play in the third quarter, Marcin Gortat tied the score at 84 with a follow layup that put the Suns in position to steal one in Staples Center with another furious fourth-quarter effort.
Instead once again their little engine ran out, as the big, bad Lakers rebounded their way to a 17-2 run that quickly finished off Phoenix.
The Suns suddenly went cold after a scorching start to the game, missing 16 of their final 23 shots (30.4 percent) after knocking down 55 percent of their shots to that point in this 114-102 loss.
On the other end when the Lakers missed they often got it back, as they rebounded eight misfires on the offensive end in the fourth quarter alone and 17 for the game, including six from Dwight Howard and four from Jordan Hill.
“In my opinion, I think Jordan Hill changed the game,” Suns head coach Alvin Gentry told reporters. “84-84 I think was what it was at that point. He came up with an offensive rebound and I thought his energy changed the game.”
This contest had previously been a game of runs as the Suns fought back from a 10-point deficit with a 15-0 spurt in the second quarter buoyed by a strong effort by Jermaine O’Neal against Howard, which the Lakers immediately answered with a 12-0 run of their own to prevent the Suns from getting too far ahead.
But when the Lakers hit them with that second haymaker late in the third and early in the fourth, the Suns just couldn’t find that next gear to make this a game again.
That should come as no surprise as it has become a common theme in a season in which the Suns have trailed by double digits in nine of their first 10 games.
We have learned that there is no quit in this team and that for stretches in a game the Suns will outwork a team to fight their way back into the contest. Occasionally they will have enough in the tank to fight all the way back (see Cleveland), but more often than not the more talented team will make that one last spurt to finish Phoenix off.
Through the better part of three quarters the Suns were doing all they could to pull the upset by fighting the Lakers to loose balls and enjoying one of their better shooting nights of the campaign, but when Kobe decided it was winning time by scoring six quick ones to end the third quarter the Suns had no counter strike.
In the last game before Mike D’Antoni sits in the head chair for the Lakers, perhaps it was fitting that the first quarter featured vintage SSOL ball, a showing of where the Suns came from and the Lakers are headed. The Lakers won the quarter 35-30 as both teams shot over 60 percent and combined for 19 fast-break points.
Michael Beasley stood out early, drilling six of his first eights shots and dishing out five first-half assists on his way to a 13-point half. He still finished with nine assists, yet his shooting percentage looked all too familiar as he missed his final seven attempts and scored a single point in the second half.
The Suns were outscored by 19 points in his 38 minutes on the floor, which is to say the Suns made their one big run with Beas riding the pine (it began when P.J. Tucker checked in for him).
Goran Dragic also came to play with his old mentor Steve Nash looking on, as he scored 22 points on 9-for-17 shooting while dishing seven assists.
Marcin Gortat did not have quite so much luck against his old sparring partner, Dwight Howard, as he finished with six points and eight boards while Howard racked up an 18 and 12 game.
Even worse, O’Neal fared much better against Superman while showing the Suns what they’ve missed these past six games he’s been out for personal reasons. JO scored 12 points in his 20 minutes on 4-for-7 shooting and racked up five boards and three blocks while getting under Howard’s skin. He played throughout all but the final three points of the Suns’ 15-0 run, scoring six points and frustrating Dwight on the other end.
The Suns have dearly missed O’Neal’s backup center presence, and tonight the vet seemed to have plenty left in his tank. Particularly on nights like tonight when Gortat’s not at his best, that will be vital.
In all, this one was relatively predictable based on the first nine games. In a nutshell, the Suns got down, fought back and ultimately could not return the more talented Lakers’ knockout punch. They continued to fight hard and made a game of it with two minutes left in the third.
But in the NBA talent wins out, and once Kobe turned it on late the Suns were left with another defeat to a quality team.
After Wednesday’s loss to the Bulls, Gentry noted an observation about how much better the Suns shoot on possessions in which they pass the ball.
“We’re a very good basketball team when we take the ball from one side of the court to the other and we make more than three passes,” he said. “When we make more than three passes, we’re a 55 percent shooting team. When we make one or two passes, we’re a 31 percent shooting team. We need to get the ball moving. We’re a much better team when we do that.” Cough, cough, Beasley and Brown. …
The Suns rank 10th on Forbes’ list of most valuable NBA franchises. They are valued at $395 million, a four percent decrease from last year.