PHOENIX – Often victims of one-dimensional offense and a lack of accountability on defense, the Phoenix Suns suddenly have found both. At a more microscopic level, the emergence of Wesley Johnson and Marcus Morris has led to the Suns’ three-game winning streak.
Phoenix dropped the hot – in more ways than one – Atlanta Hawks 92-87 on Friday in U.S. Airways Center despite facing the adversity of losing point guard Goran Dragic to a back bruise during the third quarter.
Morris, the midseason trade acquisition, scored 16 points and grabbed five rebounds two nights after hitting a big three-pointer that set up Johnson’s overtime-resulting shot in San Antonio. Johnson, in a way a midseason acquisition himself, poured in 16 himself in the Suns’ third win in a row. He also played tag with Hawks gunner Kyle Korver, who scored 17 but was limited as the game went on.
Two days after chasing around Spurs point guard Tony Parker, Johnson did it on both ends once again.
“I always watch – of course I’m a defensive guy … Korver is a great catch-and-shoot off of pin-downs, off of zippers, off of flares,” interim coach Lindsey Hunter said. “I’m telling (Johnson), ‘Play the entire possession out. You cannot relax on this kid.’ At the end I thought he really got in to him.”
Tempers flared during the game, and somehow, Phoenix held mentally strong using an intriguing lineup of Kendall Marshall, Johnson, Jermaine O’Neal and the Morris twins for the final 15 minutes of the game. They did so without Dragic, who left to the locker room with 3:21 left in the third quarter after taking another hard fall on a fastbreak. He didn’t return because of a lower back bruise, Marshall ran the team capably and Johnson kept the offense afloat with 13 third-quarter points.
“I think you can see the natural floor leadership ability from the kid,” Hunter said of Marshall. “And he’s still learning, gets a little too happy at times when he does something, but that’s a part of being young, I guess.”
Dragic finished with a team-high 19 points and six assists. For the first time in a while, he remained in the game through the first- and second-quarter break as Hunter stayed with his hot hand.
The starting point guard said he wasn’t touched by Devin Harris during his painful third-quarter fall. After Harris was called for the foul, he then added to the Hawks’ deficit by receiving a technical foul while arguing with officials.
Dragic added that he’ll easily be ready to go with the next game coming on Wednesday.
Prior to the game, Hunter said that one focus regarding the point guard play concerns selectively choosing spots to push the tempo. The tempo against Atlanta continued its pace from the last few games. Though both teams shot above 42 percent in the first half, 19 combined turnovers marred the offenses being run.
Reported Suns trade target Josh Smith showed all the bad that acquiring his services would’ve brought, scoring just five points on 2-of-11 shooting, and often launching those patented long and out-of-rhythm jumpers. And he did so despite having a distinct advantage over defender Luis Scola in the full court. Smith accounted for five of the Hawks’ nine first-half turnovers.
The Suns led 44-39 at the half and built a 50-40 lead just more than two minutes into the third quarter. Larry Drew countered with a big lineup of Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia to slide Smith to the small forward slot.
The Suns responded against an irritated Hawks team, taking a 72-61 lead into the fourth quarter following Jeff Teague’s hard foul on a Marcus Morris transition dunk attempt.
“At times, things happen like that,” Hunter said. “It gets chippy, but our guys didn’t back down. As a team you have to protect one another out there on the court. I think we did that. But we can’t allow people to provoke us to stop playing the game. We’re basketball players and we have to be that first.”
Atlanta fired back after the break in action with Anthony Tolliver quickly hitting two corner threes. The game only got more intense. O’Neal blew by Horford for a left scoop shot then drew two offensive fouls on the Hawks center before earning his own technical foul after yapping at Horford.
Phoenix’s bench had four players in double-figures. O’Neal scored 12 points and Markieff Morris added 11 points and six boards. No Suns starter outside of Dragic scored more than five points.
Dragic said that the intensity from the new Morris twin and Johnson was only part of the recent run of success. They combined to shoot 7-of-10 from beyond the three-point line, allowing the Suns to hit 10-of-22 shots from deep – that has been an Achilles’ heel of sorts this season.
“They spread the floor. The defense (inside) doesn’t want to help as much,” Dragic said. “Not just for me, but for everybody. I mean, we got JO, JO’s presence in the post is huge. We got an inside-outside game. We score a couple of threes and we put the ball in the low post and we score some in there. That’s the way we should play.”
Added Hunter: “It was a good win for us. We still got a lot of things to correct. I think we just have to keep even keel. We’re finding guys that want to play the right way and want to get out and compete. That’s what we’re looking for from the beginning.”
- Lindsey Hunter gave his thoughts on the true positions of a couple of the Suns: “I see Marcus as a three. I think Wes is more of a two. Beasley is more of a four first than a three. I kind of see them all different. I don’t get caught up in where guys are; I get caught up on if they can play or not.”
- Suns Ring of Honor member and current Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson attended the game in Phoenix.