PHOENIX — For the second game in a row, the Phoenix Suns washed away all the poor rotations, stagnant offense and laughable turnovers to drop a winning team.
Alvin Gentry’s club defeated the Utah Jazz 99-84 in US Airways Center on Friday, marking the first time since March 8-10 of this year that the Suns defeated two winning teams in a row.
Jared Dudley scored 22 points, had five assists and hit 9-of-12 shots, yet it was his defensive influence that sparked Phoenix. Moving to the small forward spot has led to two very good games and a re-emergence of the old Dudley. It’s not a Dudley that’s expected to score in the 20s, but it was the Dudley diving on the floor for loose balls and hitting big shots that put the Suns over the top.
“In defense of him,” Gentry said, “I think we’re playing him probably where we should have been playing him all year. I think he’s more comfortable there, starting as a three man.”
Added Dudley: “I would have loved to play better early on. It kind of happened last year where I lost a spot and came back. I’m a glue guy where I have to fit in with guys. That’s happened now. Defensively, I’m just trying to be a lot more active.”
So were the Suns as a team.
They were active in rotations, whether it be from double teams or not, and the two practice days leading into the Memphis game seemed to pay off once again. Rotations were crisp, and most of Utah’s shots were contested, leading to a 40.2 percent shooting night for the Jazz (13-11). Coming into Friday, Phoenix (9-15) was 29th in the league by yielding 47 percent shooting to its opponents.
Transition opportunities were there because of it.
The Suns outscored the Jazz 19-7 in fast-break points, with most of the points coming off long rebounds or active hands. Gentry said the team counted 17 deflected passes in the first half alone, a number that is usually the total for an entire game.
“That’s a tell-tale sign that we’re really active with our hands and moving our feet and getting hands on balls,” Gentry said. “That’s a really good sign.”
The defense against the big front line of Utah did fine on Friday, too. Marcin Gortat got back on track with 12 points and 14 rebounds, and afterward he seemed relieved to have that kind of success.
“Even though I missed a lot of shots early in the game,” he said, “I was still engaged and I was trying to make Big Al’s life a little more difficult.”
He held his own against Al Jefferson, who hit just 6-of-16 shots for a team-high 14 points and 11 rebounds.
Michael Beasley was the first Suns player off the bench, and in his second game seeing time at power forward, hit two threes and got a floater to connect against Utah’s Derrick Favors and Paul Millsap. Couple that with Goran Dragic easily beating Mo Williams off the dribble multiple times for 10 first-quarter points, and Phoenix found itself ahead 34-22 going into the second. Those 34 points were the most the Suns have scored in a first quarter this year.
“It’s so much easier when you’re playing downhill rather than uphill,” Gentry said. “I was real happy at half, I think we had 22 baskets and we assisted on 16 of them.”
The Suns had eight more shot attempts by beating Utah with five offensive boards to the Jazz’s three, all while forcing Utah into five turnovers to none. By game’s end, Phoenix had only 12 turnovers, none coming from Dragic.
Leading 44-26 with 8:29 to play in the second, the Jazz responded with an 8-0 run. The Suns swatted back as Dudley and Markieff Morris responded with consecutive three-pointers and led 56-36 with three minutes to play in the half.
Phoenix led 56-42 at the half, much thanks to a 15-3 advantage in fast-break points. The Suns have been focused on pushing the tempo more in the past two games – obviously, the sound defense has helped that happen.
“When we run the ball, the big men setting the pick-and-roll, then the floor is more open,” Dragic said, alluding to Gortat’s opportunities and Phoenix’s 6-for-13 shooting from three-point land.
Utah cut the lead down to four with four minutes to play in the third quarter, but as was the case on Wednesday against Memphis, Dudley’s presence was felt. He drilled a three-pointer to give the Suns a 68-61 lead as they again weathered a Utah push.
The beginning of the fourth made for a wonky few minutes. The Suns turned the ball over three times (twice by Beasley) in the first minute of the fourth against a Jazz press.
“In those situations we just have to be sure (of the passes),” Gentry said. “I thought we did a good job of recovering and coming back, then extending the lead.”
Beasley left three minutes into the fourth after also missing two shots, and upon entering, his replacement, Morris, got into it with Favors, the latter of whom was called for a technical foul. Utah trailed 77-70 a minute into the period before the Suns’ bench put the Jazz away.
Dudley, who played 43 minutes and didn’t sit in the second half until the scrubs entered (the Suns were outscored by 11 in the five minutes he didn’t play), grabbed one of those 50-50 balls off an offensive rebound to score, then chased down a loose defensive board and simultaneously drew a foul — that drew another technical by Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin.
Jermaine O’Neal and P.J. Tucker put in valuable time in the fourth as the lead ballooned, and Tucker had 10 points and four rebounds, helping Phoenix put five players into double-figures.
What looms is whether or not Phoenix’s two-game streak is any sign that change has occurred enough to make a push back up the standings. While Gentry clearly got the attention of his players, making it stick is key.
Most of all, the Suns aren’t pressing as they appeared to be doing during the seven-game losing streak.
“I have a feeling teams are coming here and feeling they’re going to have an easy game, and unfortunately they’re not,” Gortat said. “That’s good for us.
“It was fun to be out there,” the center added.
CBS Sports’ Ken Berger writes that league sources believe the Suns are headed for a “major reset,” as he puts it. Again, head coach Alvin Gentry has a place for the rest of the season since there’s no point in firing a coach on the final year of his contract.
Gentry very well could be coaching for a new contract. That’s assuming the future is not predetermined. Before Friday’s game, Gentry joked that he “had enough to worry about” when asked about the Lakers’ troubles. It wasn’t in context with his job, but rather an affirmation that he’s focused on the task at hand rather than next year — or other teams for that matter.
Gentry on Beasley’s better play coming off the bench at the power forward slot: “I thought he did a good job. He’s doing some good things for us, made some good plays. Had a couple of turnovers there, but you know, I think we shined the spotlight on him much too much. He’s just a guy trying to fit in here and play and we’re trying to move him and find him a spot to play.”
Beasley scored 11 points and had three assists, most of which came in a solid first half.