Solutions to the toughest problems are often discovered in blatantly accidental ways. It’s usually a story behind the discovery of the law of gravity or something of the sort, but on Tuesday night it was a tale on the basketball court for the Phoenix Suns.
A visit to the Memphis Grizzlies saw starting point guard Goran Dragic find early foul trouble. That led to rookie Kendall Marshall being forced into heavy minutes, which then resulted in Dragic playing off the ball late and scoring 15 fourth-quarter points in a 96-90 Phoenix victory.
The Suns won their fifth road game to improve their road record to 5-20 on the season.
Lindsey Hunter summoned his inner Alvin Gentry and rolled with a unique rotation in a couple of ways. He countered the red-hot Jerryd Bayless and his role as a undersized shooting guard by playing Dragic opposite him and next to Marshall.
It was a throwback decision that was by accident, but it could turn into a similar situation to Dragic’s own turning point as a young backup point guard behind Steve Nash. Early in his career, Dragic slid to the shooting guard slot to play comfortably alongside a veteran. Against Memphis, it was the same theory to help Marshall, only Dragic’s move off the ball again helped him.
Luckily, Marshall had found a comfort zone because of extended minutes thanks Dragic’s early foul trouble. The rookie led Phoenix with 33 minutes to score 11 points along with four assists. Marshall only had two turnovers and hit 4-of-8 shots from the floor, including a 3-of-5 shooting clip from three-point range.
Dragic finished with 17 points and four assists.
All of a sudden, Hunter has a new twist in finding more minutes for Marshall without cutting Dragic’s floor time.
And in a way, the confidence the move gave Dragic somewhat mirrored Bayless’ recent aggressiveness.
Bayless led Memphis with 29 points, and like Dragic played mostly off the ball. The former Arizona Wildcat — since his college days more of a scorer in a point guard’s body — had been successful in his new role following Rudy Gay’s trade, and in hindsight it is perhaps a lesson in how the Suns might consider using Dragic moving forward, especially if they’d like to develop and keep Marshall.
In another interesting rotational decision on Tuesday, Hunter also made it a point to use the Suns’ length up front to beat up on the Grizzlies’ interior.
Phoenix went to Luis Scola on the block early and often against Zach Randolph, and the Suns frustrated the Grizzlies in the fourth by playing the center tandem of Marcin Gortat and Jermaine O’Neal together for just the second time this year – that duo hasn’t played together for more than 23 minutes and doesn’t register at 82games.com.
Gortat scored 13 first-quarter points to finish with 20 total on 8-of-10 shooting. O’Neal played for the first time in seven games and the first time under Hunter after an irregular heart beat kept him out of action. He scored 14 and the three big men for Phoenix – Scola added 10 points – more than made up for Randolph’s 21 points by frustrating Marc Gasol into just six points.
Like the two teams had done often this year, Memphis and Phoenix went back and forth throughout, the Suns leading by as many as 10 in the second quarter. The Grizzlies led 52-50 at the half and held the advantage until the Suns tied it at 77 with seven minutes to play in the game.
That was just after Dragic entered for Shannon Brown, and just before the Dragon took over the game. The Slovenian hit a twisting, pivoting layup, two free throws and a mid-range jumper in the final minute and a half. It was almost a repeat performance of his game-winner in a 82-80 victory over the Grizzlies on Dec. 12.
The Suns shot 51 percent and held Memphis to 44 percent, and they took advantage of two late throwaways by the Grizzlies. That said, Phoenix had a few flub-ups itself down the stretch, but nothing a few big shots by Dragic couldn’t overcome.
While a victory against a new-look Grizzlies team might mean only so much, especially since Phoenix has simply shown it causes matchup problems with Memphis, the Suns learned something new about themselves in Tennessee.
The Dragic-Marshall backcourt could help both players grow. It could end up benefitting Gortat in the pick-and-roll game down the road if he isn’t shipped off before the trade deadline as well. It’s far from a long-term solution, but the Suns finally used a tough situation – Dragic’s foul trouble and early struggles – to find perhaps a solution to the minute limitations.
Even if it was only a one-time thing, the decisions made by Hunter were a good sign for the interim coach, who on one night backed up the Suns’ hiring of him. As Hunter told Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports this week, the hard-hat is on.
Tonight, it paid off.