PHOENIX — For the first time this season, the Phoenix Suns learned how to make life easy on themselves. As a trend so far this year, they’d find themselves trailing by double-digits, but in their second win in a row on Friday night, the Suns trailed the Utah Jazz only briefly early on and led 34-22 after the first quarter in the best first-quarter performance of the season.
That allowed them to prove that they could weather runs by a team that came into Phoenix rolling.
“It’s much easier when we have a lead,” point guard Goran Dragic said afterward. “Everybody is more calm, we run the plays. Our execution tonight was real good.”
The real test comes at US Airways Center on Monday night against the Sacramento Kings, when Phoenix can show whether or not it took that lesson to heart. Now 2-0 with the starting lineup of Dragic, Shannon Brown, Jared Dudley, Luis Scola and Marcin Gortat, players indicated on Friday that the rotations finally could be solidified, and that – and the winning – has helped the locker room drip with confidence.
Dudley said that the previous seven-game losing streak has given Phoenix its sense of urgency back, though wins against Memphis and Utah showed that the Suns used that sense of urgency with a regained execution.
“You lose seven in a row, you’re a little embarrassed,” Dudley said.
The defense has been crisp of late. And on offense, the Suns have emphasized pushing the tempo even off opponents’ buckets.
“We haven’t been pushing the ball as much as we should have,” said head coach Alvin Gentry, who has challenged Dragic to do just that. “I thought (Goran) was great tonight. For the most part he did a good job of attacking the basket.”
Dragic’s control of the game was on point against the Jazz on Friday, most notably in the second half. After the substitution of Michael Beasley at the power forward spot, a Marcin Gortat rebound was passed to Beasley on the left outlet with Dragic standing next to him. That appeared to frustrate the Slovenian point guard, not necessarily in terms of a chemistry standpoint but from that of leadership.
“I have to talk to Gortat about that,” Dragic said afterward, smiling. “I yell, Gortat, Gortat, give me the ball, but he passes to Beasley.”
After speaking with Gentry on a foul shot after the play, the next two possessions saw Dragic attack the rim by dribbling the ball the length of the court. It’s all part of the maturing process for Dragic. His actions afterward set the tone just enough to keep the Jazz out of the game. His command of the offense, and having the ball the his hands during key stretch, is a good sign for the Suns.
Of course, easier done when there’s no pressure to come back from a double-digit deficit. And without that pressure, there’s no forced shots, no hero ball for one player here, another there.
Said Gentry, quite simply: “It’s so much easier when you’re playing downhill rather than uphill.”
Three keys for the Phoenix Suns
Hit them early. Again, the Suns would love to play with the lead, but especially against the Kings, demoralization could go a long way in making the win happen. Sacramento has lost four in a row against Phoenix, four in a row coming into Monday’s game and is 1-9 on the road this year. Simply put, the Suns can use the motivation of striking the one team with a worse record in the Pacific Division early in the contest. The Kings have lost their four games by an average of 17.5 points.
Move the ball. Alvin Gentry preached ball movement during the seven-game losing streak. Recently, the Suns have found that. In the first half of Friday’s game, they had 22 made field goals on 16 assists, something Gentry was proud of afterward. Again, the execution was there, but Phoenix can’t get caught up in any one-on-one back-and-forths with the Kings, who are one of the worst passing teams in the league. That’s especially true for DeMarcus Cousins at center, who has found great success against Phoenix in his short NBA career.
Allow Gortat to get his confidence early. Marcin Gortat found is mojo, so to speak, against the Jazz. Defense was a big part of it, but he pointed out that his focus didn’t waver despite missing some easy buckets. Engaged throughout, Gortat bested Al Jefferson, and how he defends Cousins will go a long way in winning.