PHOENIX — Alvin Gentry made two changes to his starting lineup, but the way the Suns played it almost seemed like he swapped out his entire team before Phoenix’s 114-87 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday evening.
This night was different from all other nights because the Suns shot 59.7 percent from the field despite entering the game shooting 43.1 percent with a high of 48.9 percent Friday against the Lakers. Phoenix scored a season-best 125.4 points per 100 possessions despite coming into the game averaging 99.7, per the NBA’s stats tool.
The Suns also played perhaps their best defensive game of the season, yielding a season-low 89.3 points per 100 compared to a season average of 107.2. Phoenix gave up 40.3 percent shooting, their best performance since the opening night clank fest against the Warriors.
Instead of falling behind early, the Suns shot 63.2 percent in the first quarter to lead after the first for only the third time all year and the first since Nov. 7 in Charlotte. That Bobcats game was also the only other time all year the Suns did not trail by double digits at any point in the game as the Blazers never led by more than four.
“Obviously it was our best game, our most complete game for 48 minutes,” Gentry said. “I thought that from the start of the game all the way though we did a good job. I thought overall it was by far our best performance. We shot the ball exceptionally well because I think we had good ball movement, and we got easy shots. We created easy shots for ourselves.”
After using the same starting lineup for the first 11 games of the season and playing that unit together for heavy minutes, the Suns substituted Markieff Morris and Shannon Brown for Luis Scola and Jared Dudley. Needless to say, for one game at least the move certainly worked.
In 18 minutes with the starting lineup of Dragic-Brown-Beasley-Morris-Gortat, the Suns outscored the Blazers 46-39 while shooting 61.3 percent. In 13 minutes of Telfair-Dudley-Tucker-Scola-O’Neal, the Suns won 30-20 while draining 61.9 percent of their attempts.
Granted this came against a listless Blazers team, but no matter whom Gentry put on the floor good things happened as every active player was in the positives of plus/minus, led by Tucker’s plus 23 in 27 minutes.
“Everything that we do is still a work in progress, and I’m not going to yell from the mountaintop right now,” Gentry said. “It’s one game, and we played real well, and we’ll see Friday if it’ll work, and then we’ll keep trying to figure out how we can play combinations of guys, but I thought they played well tonight the combinations that we had, and obviously it’s a much, much needed win for us.”
The lineup change brought about a different Marcin Gortat, as the middle was more open with Morris spacing the floor on the perimeter. Gortat also came out aggressive after making comments about wanting to have a bigger role in the offense last week.
He said he worked extremely hard the last two days and did a much better job sealing off his man for easy buckets, as he played a superb offensive game with 22 points and seven rebounds on 11-for-14 shooting without even logging a second in the fourth quarter.
“I tried to put myself in a better position to score and make myself available to teammates, and I’m just glad Coach gave me the opportunity to help the team offensively,” said Gortat, who had scored 21 points the past three games combined. “I’ve learned in the past three days that you’ve got to play the game with a little bit of anger. That’s what I learned from our veterans, that’s what I learned, and I had a little bit of anger inside me. I just tried to prove it and show that I’m the player, that I’m capable of scoring inside. It’s one game, I’m not trying to get excited. There’s still a lot of work in front of me. I’m just going to try to continue now.”
Gortat wasn’t the only Suns big man to explode tonight as Jermaine O’Neal came off the bench to put up 17 points and five rebounds on 7-for-9 shooting to go along with two blocks in a mere 18:30. For the game in a full 48 minutes, the duo scored a ridiculous 37 points on 18-for-23 shooting and pulled down 12 rebounds.
That surely says something about the kind of defense played by Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland, but when was the last time the Suns got such production from the center spot?
“Jermaine was unstoppable today,” Gortat said. “He basically showed the full package today offensively. I’m trying to work on it.”
Of the players actually involved in the starting lineup shakeup, nobody benefited more than Morris tonight. The Kansas product entered the night shooting 35.4 percent from the floor and before Saturday he had never made more than half his shots in a game this season.
However, tonight he scored a season-high 19 points on 9-for-13 shooting while pulling down seven boards in a mere 25 minutes of play. He has now scored 35 points on 15-for-22 shooting in his last two contests and is starting to turn around what had been an abysmal season to this point.
“I didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself, so I just came out and played hard,” Morris said. “Just do what I do and not try to over-think the game, just play hard.”
At the other end, Morris helped limit Blazers stud LaMarcus Aldridge to 12 points on 5-for-15 shooting — nine points below his season average — and four of those points came in garbage time with Morris on the bench. Morris aimed to play Aldridge physical and make him take shots he didn’t want to shoot, and it worked as the former Longhorn languished on the perimeter much of the contest.
Brown (10 points, 2-for-4), Scola (four points, 2-for-4) and Dudley (four points, 2-for-4) did not make much of an offensive impact, and the Blazers hardly looked like a team that had won three in a row entering this one.
However, every lineup Gentry tried played well and they all just seemed to make more sense than the lineups previously drawn up. It seems to have been proven that Beasley-Scola-Gortat is a bad fit, so although Scola doesn’t necessarily deserve to be benched, Morris just works better with the starters. Likewise, Scola should eventually become the primary bench scorer, a role that should help that unit become less lopsided. Tonight it was still a superb defensive lineup (75.8 defensive rating).
The Suns needed a blowout like this in the worst way being that it’s the kind of victory that has escaped them all season. The nature of the win makes Gentry look like a genius for pulling the trigger on the lineup change, but everyone in the organization understands that one superior 48-minute effort won’t mask the problems that have surfaced in the first 11 games.
‘This is just one game,” Gortat said. “We’ve got to continue to play like that. If we share the ball, if we distribute the ball, we move the ball, look how much fun we have. We’re beating the team by 30, so it’s just fun. It’s fun playing, it’s fun winning. It’s no fun losing.”
The Suns have won four straight home games against the Blazers and 13 of 15 since 2004-05. … Beasley played a mere 18:56, collecting five points and two boards. At least for one night, decreased PT for Beas was a part of the rotation changes. … Morris on whether it was bad timing that he got sick last season upon earning a starting job: “I think I got sick when they told me. I felt pretty good until they told me that. I don’t know what happened after that.” … The Suns blew out the Blazers early last season as well, a 25-point drubbing that ended up being the team’s biggest home victory of the year. … Before the game Dudley retweeted a Dan Reeves quote that said, “Difficulties in life are intended to make us better, not bitter.”