PHOENIX — No one in the Suns’ locker room is quite sure what it is, but there’s something about Friday night games at US Airways Center this season. For the third consecutive Friday home contest, Alvin Gentry’s squad dug itself an early double-digit hole, yet somehow found a way to come from behind in thrilling fashion to snag an unlikely victory.
It wasn’t quite the 26-point comeback against the Cleveland Cavaliers that Phoenix managed to muster up two weeks ago, but if that was 1A on the comeback scale, Friday night’s 19-point rally in a 111-108 overtime win over the New Orleans Hornets was certainly 1B.
At the start of the third quarter, the Hornets went on a 21-8 run to push their lead to a comfortable 74-55 margin. The Suns looked lethargic, uninspired and rather content to go 1-1 following their recent lineup shakeup.
They’ve fooled us once, even twice this season with the type of victories that can easily raise one’s blood pressure. But a third time?
After giving up 14 points and seven assists to New Orleans guard Greivis Vasquez in the first half, Goran Dragic took matters into his own hands to spark another third quarter revival. The Slovenian connected on three 3-pointers in a span of 90 seconds, and Phoenix rattled off 22-7 run of its own to close out the third quarter — a span that ended with a rare P.J. Tucker three-pointer at the buzzer.
Trailing 81-77 entering the final frame, Gentry left his new-look reserve unit — Sebastian Telfair, Jared Dudley, Tucker, Jermaine O’Neal and Luis Scola — on the floor to begin the fourth. All they did was reward his faith with a 12-0 spurt over the first four minutes of play.
Dudley (nine points) canned a pair of shots from downtown, Scola finally found a groove offensively (eight of his 10 points came in the fourth quarter) and Jermaine O’Neal turned the clock back on his NBA career for a fourth consecutive game as he recorded his first double-double of the season with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
The Suns were in the driver’s seat. The comeback looked to be complete. But a Monty Williams-coached team never plays less than 48 minutes. Friday was no exception.
After trading baskets down the stretch, Dudley connected on his final three of the quarter with 97 seconds to go to put Phoenix up 103-95. But in a game that featured some pretty impressive runs, the Hornets had one more in them to quiet the Valley crowd.
Capped off by a Vasquez (season-high 25 points and 14 assists) three-point shot with 17 seconds to go, the Hornets stung late, closing the fourth quarter on an 8-0 run to force overtime.
In the extra session, the Suns did something they hadn’t done all evening — play defense on the perimeter.
Phoenix held New Orleans scoreless over its first seven possessions and key plays by Markieff Morris (big three with under a minute to play) and Tucker (crucial offensive rebound with under five seconds remaining) gave the Suns their second-largest home comeback win of the season.
Tucker’s heady play to chase down a loose ball off a foul shot in the final seconds capped off arguably his finest night as a pro. In a season-high 34 minutes, the second-year forward poured in a career-high 15 points and seven rebounds. His two three-point makes were double the amount he came into the contest with for his entire career.
“I can’t say enough about P.J. Tucker, he epitomizes what we want our entire team to be, really,” head coach Alvin Gentry said. “That is a hard, grind-it worker that never quits on any play. That rebound was tremendous at the end. I can’t say enough about him.”
Tucker admits he’s loving every minute of his time in Phoenix, but even during his proudest hour as a professional, the former Texas star knows his team can’t keep expecting its Friday night magic to carry over for an entire season.
“Trust me, this is not how we draw it up,” Tucker said. “That’s definitely not what I want. It comes out OK and it is just about the getting the win. I thought it was one of the biggest wins for us.”
The win also marked an important step for the team’s former No. 13 overall pick, Morris. Starting just his second game this season, he too recorded a career high in points with 23 — none bigger of course than his three-ball from the top of the arc to extend the Suns’ overtime lead to five with 49 seconds to go.
“It felt good,” Morris said. “I got hit for like seven or eight, so it was nice to get one late in the game like that.”
Morris had a point.
In defeat, Ryan Anderson had a night for the ages from behind the three-point arc. The first-year Hornet scored a career-high 34 points, while also tying his career high for three-point makes (eight). Seven of his eight conversions from distance came in the second half or overtime as he single-handedly kept Monty Williams and Co. in the game.
“I can honesty say I’ve never seen anyone shoot it like that,” Gentry said of Anderson’s performance. “That was Larry Bird-like if you ask me, and I don’t know if Larry Bird even shot threes like that. Talk about shooting under duress. He had one good look and the other ones, we were right there.”
The Suns weren’t right there on the scoreboard, though, for the first 60 percent of the contest, as Gentry’s starting five struggled to contain New Orleans inside the arc — 42 paint points — and failed to replicate the complete performance (71 points) the unit put on in Wednesday’s rout of the Blazers.
Michael Beasley played a season-low 16 minutes and didn’t see the floor in the fourth quarter or overtime. The fourth-year pro couldn’t find any touch on his jump shot — two points on 1-of-6 shooting — and repeatedly got torched at the defensive end by Al-Farouq Aminu (16 points on 6-of-7 shooting).
Following his 22-point performance against Portland, Marcin Gortat couldn’t string together good looks at the offensive end against New Orleans. Going up against former teammate Robin Lopez, the Polish Hammer failed to convert on several short shot opportunities and finished with just six points and five rebounds.
In their absence, Scola and O’Neal picked up the slack. Now relegated to bench duty — Scola obviously more recently than O’Neal — the two veterans did their respective jobs, nothing more and nothing less.
While his teammates delighted in the almost-majestic nature of the their latest double-digit comeback win, Scola, being the professional that he is, kept things in perspective.
“I don’t think it’s a great win, because it’s the same problems we’ve been showing the whole season,” said Scola. “I wouldn’t count this as a great win, it’s just a win. A good win would be those that we take care of from the beginning like the Portland game.
The Suns embark on a season-long six-game road trip beginning Sunday in Philadelphia. They do so, however, with a positive taste in their mouths on the heels of what Tucker referred to as “a two-game win streak.” It hasn’t been perfect, even with the pouncing of Portland, but runs like they had Friday give the Suns confidence they can build on after the disappointing start.
“It was really important to get these two games,” Dragic said. “We were 4-7 and knew we had to win these two homes games. We did a great job, but now it’s behind us. Now we go on the road and have games against some teams we feel we can win against, too.”
- Robin Lopez made his return to the Valley on Friday night. The former first-round pick out of Stanford received high praise from his former coach before the game and a bevvy of boos from fans during pregame introductions. In a season-high 41 minutes, Lopez looked very much like the underachieving player he was during his four years with the Suns. He finished with eight points, seven rebounds, and four blocks but Lopez’s offensive game was not very fluid for a starting center.
- The Suns played in a franchise-high nine overtime games during the 2010-11 season. Last season, however, Phoenix didn’t play any overtime games. Friday night’s victory is the team’s first in a 53-minute contest since April 11, 2011, against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
- Just how far has Jermaine O’Neal turned back the clock? Until Friday night’s 13-point outing, O’Neal hadn’t had four straight double-digit scoring efforts since March 2010, when he went six straight games scoring 10 or more for the Miami Heat.