Hand an NBA team an opponent that’s shooting below 30 percent, turning the ball over at a high rate and without its best player, and most teams would make due.
The Phoenix Suns didn’t look like that was enough of a gift during the first half of their 91-78 victory in Cleveland on Tuesday, but they finally made the needed knockout punch to roll past the woeful, Kyrie Irving-less Cavaliers.
Goran Dragic overcame four first-half turnovers to finish with 19 points on just 11 shots attempted, and a third-quarter run sparked by Jared Dudley, Jermaine O’Neal and Luis Scola gave Phoenix the double-digit lead that a tired Cavaliers team couldn’t counter.
Phoenix’s bench outscored Cleveland’s 38-17 on the night, and about the only thing the Cavs had going for them was a valiant performance by center Anderson Varejao, who scored 20 points and grabbed 18 rebounds.
In the third quarter, Varejao scored 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting as Marcin Gortat struggled to close out on the center’s jump shots. But after finding themselves behind 59-57, the Suns went on a 14-0 run in the final three minutes of the third quarter to lead 71-59.
They didn’t look back. Dragic hit back-to-back three-pointers with less than five minutes to play, and a Scola free throw — one of his eight points in the final quarter — gave Phoenix its largest lead of 21 with three minutes left in the game.
At the jump, the Suns wanted to ignite the erratic flame of a player that is Michael Beasley.
Knowing that building upon Beasley’s 21-point outing on Sunday was of much importance, the Suns were clearly pressing to get his confidence high early on. He shot four times in the first three minutes of the game and scored on a three-pointer and a dunk. From then on, Beasley looked engaged throughout — that, perhaps is his biggest problem — and finished with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting.
The Cavaliers didn’t get a point in the paint until seven minutes were left in the first half, but it didn’t mean the Suns were taking advantage of their position — not by a longshot. Despite holding Cleveland to 25 percent shooting in the first quarter and 27.3 percent in the first half, Phoenix only led by as many as 11 on a Dudley fast-break
Phoenix only led 37-32 at the half despite shooting 45.5 percent from the floor as the two teams combined for 23 turnovers. Cleveland stayed in the game with 12 offensive rebounds to the Suns’ single second opportunity. In correlation, the Cavs had 11 more shot attempts at the half.
The Suns did better in the second half and gave up just two offensive boards the rest of the way. Cleveland finished the night shooting 35.7 percent from the floor, not good enough despite the rebounding efforts to keep pace with the Suns’ 46.8 percent field goal shooting.
For all the good across the Suns’ roster, Gortat’s performance was the one glaring eyesore. His failure to close out on Varejao’s jump shots allowed the Cleveland center to hit 10-of-15 shots from the floor, eight of which came from at least 10 feet from the basket. Along with three rebounds, Gortat finished with six points on 3-of-7 shooting in 24 minutes.
O’Neal’s play off the bench was also a reason Gortat didn’t return after leaving right before Phoenix’s 14-0 run. The veteran scored nine points, had six rebounds and cut off Varejao’s hot night. He also got in the face of Cleveland rookie Tyler Zeller — the younger brother of the Suns’ Luke Zeller — earning a technical foul in the process.
Overall, the first half was another frightening realization that the Suns often take a lackadaisical approach in moments when they should be taking advantage of a struggling opponent. And in the end, Phoenix finally made the push it needed to avoid the upset, one good enough to give Alvin Gentry’s 1A and 1B rotation decent rest at the beginning of a long road trip.