PHOENIX — Things can change quickly in the NBA.
Like the opening Goran Dragic thought he saw on the right side of the lane in the waning moments of Wednesday’s contest against the Memphis Grizzlies.
But as Dragic raced towards the basket for a potential game-winning shot opportunity, he was cut off by 7-foot-1 center Marc Gasol. The scene was a familiar one; after all Dragic got stuck on the team’s final play in regulation eight days earlier in Memphis. On that night, he dumped the ball to Jermaine O’Neal inside for a fadeaway jump shot. The shot missed the mark, and Phoenix eventually dropped the game in the extra session.
Wednesday night, Dragic didn’t panic. He didn’t force a pass or try to do too much. Instead, the Suns’ guard calmly pump faked Gasol and went underneath the Spanish center’s outstretched arm for a beautiful, game-winning layup with 0.5 seconds remaining.
“We really needed this win and it feels great,” Dragic said. “They are a great team with strong big guys like Marc [Gasol] and Zach [Randolph], but we did everything well that our coaches drew up for us before the game. It was a great win.”
It was even sweeter for Dragic, because in the team’s last home loss to the Dallas Mavericks, he had a chance to tie the game late with a layup.
“I missed last time,” said Dragic, who missed Sunday’s game against Orlando due to a severe flu. “So this time I told myself that I had to make it.”
Things can change quickly in the NBA.
Like a seven-game losing streak that went out the door at US Airways Center Wednesday night, as the Suns hung on to win ugly 82-80 over the Memphis Grizzlies.
A win is a win is a win, especially for a team that hasn’t done a lot of it lately. But by no means was Wednesday’s win over Memphis a classic showcase of basketball excellence by the Suns.
Alvin Gentry reinserted Luis Scola into the starting lineup, because the Suns coach thought he’d be a better defensive matchup against Zach Randolph than second-year forward Markieff Morris. On paper the move made sense. Randolph torched Morris on his way to 38 points and 22 rebounds in a win over the Suns last week.
The move, however, did not prove to be very beneficial for Phoenix.
Randolph had 10 points (all in the paint) over the first 6:02 of the contest and the Suns found themselves in a quick 19-11 hole. Phoenix cut the deficit to six after 12 minutes of play but poor offensive execution (shot 34.8 percent from the field) and a lack of intensity in the interior at the defensive end spelled trouble for Gentry’s squad.
Those troubles were exacerbated by the play of Michael Beasley off the bench. In his first two games coming off the pine, Beasley had a combined 24 points, but 18 of those came in the first half of Saturday’s loss against the Los Angeles Clippers. Since his torrid half at the Staples Center, it’s been the same old Michael Beasley: shoot, shoot and shoot some more until the hook comes.
And against the Grizzlies, there was no exception to the rule.
After subbing in for Scola midway through the first quarter, Beasley did everything in his power to get involved offensively. The problem was his involvement shut down any resemblance of offensive flow for the rest of his teammates. Beasley took 11 of his team’s first 33 shots and connected on just two of them. Gentry replaced him with Jared Dudley at the 7:39 mark of the second quarter, and that was all he would see of the floor Wednesday night.
“He’s trying hard,” Gentry said of Beasley. “You know what, we just have to keep working with him. That’s why we are here. We can’t just give up on a guy because he is struggling right now.”
It’s no surprise that Beasley’s shooting spree coincided with the Suns’ growing deficit. Memphis’ lead ballooned to 11 — its largest of the night — before the Suns showed any sense of energy in the second quarter.
That energy eventually came on a change in defensive tactics. Phoenix went to a 2-3 zone to limit Memphis’ bigs from getting easy catches in the paint and it worked. Over the final four minutes of the half, the Suns went on 12-6 run to cut the halftime deficit to three. With Beasley and Scola on the bench, Phoenix received notable contributions from Jermaine O’Neal (four points and four blocked shots), Dudley (four points), Shannon Brown (five points) and Morris (four points, two rebounds and a block).
In the third quarter, offense appeared to be optional. After Randolph scored the first four points of the second half, the two teams set the stage for a tight, scrappy last 12 minutes of basketball. Outside of production from Rudy Gay (six points and five rebounds) and Dragic (seven points and three assists), the Suns and Grizzlies were more than content to turn the game into a defensive slugfest. Memphis turned the ball over six times but shot 53.8 percent from the field. Phoenix turned the ball over just once in the quarter but shot 39.1 percent.
It’s fitting that on a date celebrating the repetition of the No. 12, the Suns would need 12 good minutes of basketball to snap their longest losing streak since February 2004. During the streak, Phoenix failed to finish games in the fourth quarter in five of its seven losses.
After the Grizzlies scored on four of their first seven possessions to start the final frame — capped off by a go-ahead Gasol jumper with 8:18 to play — the Suns turned into the defensive team Elston Turner had envisioned at the season’s start.
The Suns held Memphis scoreless on 10 of their next 13 offensive trips, and while Brown did his best to shoot Phoenix out of the contest (finished 5-of-19 for 15 points), Dudley and Morris made key plays at the right time to keep the Suns ahead. Morris scored seven points down the stretch and Dudley recorded five rebounds (three of which extended offensive possessions), and with 3:24 remaining the Suns were on the brink of not only snapping a seven-game losing streak but doing so against an elite Western Conference team.
Unfortunately the game’s conclusion wasn’t exactly the nail-biter the final score might have indicated. Neither team could make a bucket, as both the Suns and Grizzlies combined to go 0-for-8 over the next 2:36.
Just as he had done in the final moments of regulation eight days earlier, Gay (21 points and 11 rebounds) took and hit the biggest shot when the Grizzlies needed him most. With 48 seconds to go, the former No. 8 overall pick drained a turnaround 19-foot jump shot over P.J. Tucker. Tucker, who had missed the previous two games after suffering an MCL sprain against the Mavericks, would have the final laugh, however.
After Dudley’s 21-foot jump shot from straight away went in-and-out on Phoenix’s ensuing possession, Gay had a chance to break the hearts of the 13,093 fans in attendance.
Tucker would have none of it.
Phoenix’s second-year forward put every ounce of himself in front of Gay’s final attempt — without fouling him — and Memphis’ star forward could not connect from 15 feet.
Instead, it was Dragic (12 points and eight assists) who would play the hero Wednesday night, with a shot that for one night put to rest all of the talk about job security, toxic players and trade scenarios.
“For us to gut out a win against one of the best teams in the Western Conference if not the NBA, especially the way we lost to them in Memphis, to come back shows you a little bit about the character of this team,” Dudley said. “Now we are going to try and get this thing rolling. Obviously outside the top five teams in the conference, no one is playing that well. So, it’s a good start.”
Things can change quickly in the NBA, as the Suns found out with their first win in the month of December.
It wasn’t sexy basketball. It wasn’t high-quality basketball, either. But for one night, it was winning basketball. And after a losing streak that continually tested the resolve of a still-maturing team, that was enough.
“I thought we kind of gutted it out,” said Gentry. “We made a couple of plays down the stretch and that has been kind of the difference in four or five games that we’ve had. We just hadn’t been able to make the play. It’s been one possession or a rebound or something like that, that has cost us a loss.
“It was good to get the monkey off our back.”
- It was a night of firsts for the Suns in 2012-13. Wednesday’s win over Memphis marked their first win of December, their first win over a team with a winning record and their first win when shooting less than 40 percent from the field. Since the 2006-07, Phoenix had won just three previous games shooting less than 40 percent.
- Phoenix held the Grizzlies to just 34 second-half points, the fewest by any opponent this season. Arguably more remarkable was the defense of Markieff Morris in the fourth quarter. Morris played all 12 minutes and held Zach Randolph (18 points and 10 rebounds) scoreless.
- Dudley had his hand in everything Wednesday night. Since being reinserted into the starting lineup, Dudley has now scored 15 points in two of his last three contests. But Dudley also contributed in other ways against Memphis. The fifth-year forward dished out five assists and grabbed a season-high nine rebounds.