Phoenix Suns 107, Houston Rockets 105 -- Surviving James Harden

PHOENIX – It was Hamed Haddadi’s night, and point guard Goran Dragic had the best one-assist performance of his career. It was “weird night,” as Dragic said of his own game. Yet weird is the way of the NBA these days save for the traditional championship contenders.

On Saturday night against the Houston Rockets, there were the following matchups: Omer Asik against Haddadi, Michael Beasley against Carlos Delfino, and a combo of Marcus Morris and P.J. Tucker trying to guard James Harden. Nothing your average fan tunes in to see, but something intriguing in itself.

Tucker saw time down the stretch playing power forward, Haddadi — the only center available — closed the game save for a hack-a-thon as Houston tried to get back into it late. And the difference between the Western Conference’s No. 7 seed and the lowly Phoenix Suns didn’t appear all that great as Phoenix overcame a 38-point onslaught from James Harden to win 107-105 on Saturday night in U.S. Airways Center.

“He’s the real deal,” interim coach Lindsey Hunter said. “I thought our guys fought tooth and nail to make every basket for him tough and he continued to score. But I thought Haddadi was a great neutralizer for us, and our guys Tucker and Marcus, you know, they fought hard as they could.”

Haddadi grabbed a career-high 11 boards and patrolled the paint for the Suns with three blocks. Though Houston cranked up 41 three-pointers and made 19, that 46 percent shooting from deep was offset by hitting just 40 percent of its two-pointers.

Phoenix kept pace with its defense, collecting 21 turnovers to score 28 points. Jared Dudley, for the second game in a row, came off the bench to lead the Suns with 22 points and had seven assists as Hunter worked the ball into his hands. Meanwhile, Dragic went silent through three quarters to explode for 13 points in the fourth quarter.

“I didn’t find the rhythm the first three quarters,” Dragic said. “They were really defending me well, especially in the pick-and-rolls. Asik did a good job and even Jeremy Lin … it was tough to make a play. In the fourth quarter, I just was talking to coach, I told him, let me play. I have to do something for the team. I hit a couple of shots, went to the free throw line.”

The Suns led Houston 28-24 after one quarter of play and went on a 16-0 run from the nine-minute mark of the second quarter until 3:17 remained before the half. They led 50-46 at half, but lost a lead as big as 11 points in the first half. Phoenix held the lead until Harden hit a three-pointer with 5:28 to play in the third.

Houston built a lead of 81-77 minutes into the final quarter, but the Suns went on a 16-5 run over the next four minutes to build a seven-point lead.

A play that didn’t get tabbed as a second of Dragic’s single assist was the possession of the game. With a 91-86 lead Dragic lost the ball but made a lunging dive to recover it as the shot clock wound down. He found Marshall on the left side of the wing and the rookie point guard banked in a running, 23-foot shot as the time expired.

“It was a weird game for me,” Dragic said. “I couldn’t find the open guy. Even if I find the open guy, they were closing, contesting their shots. In the end, I’m lucky, I know that I only had one assist.

“That was one of the best assists ever,” he added, not realizing his only recorded assist was actually to Marshall for a three-pointer that had tied the game at 84. “That was a crazy shot. That was the move of the game.”

Said Hunter: “That was a crucial, crucial possession. Without Goran doing that, I don’t know if we win. Those are the types of plays that we want to be known for. That’s the type of grit and mettle that we want to show in those situations.”

Down the stretch, Hunter went with a lineup of Marshall, Dragic, Dudley, Haddadi and a combo of P.J. Tucker and Marcus Morris at the power forward spot. Marshall had a game of “growing up” as Hunter put it, scoring nine points and recording four assists.

“He was some extremely big plays for us,” Hunter said. “Even the ones driving to the rim, which he would never do at the beginning of the season. Those are the plays he’s going to have to continue to make to grow as a point guard.”

So was Houston’s three-point barrage the most aggressive the Suns – and the NBA – has seen this year?

“I think Golden State is up there, they shoot a lot of them,” Tucker said. “But, you know, they get so many of them up, you just try to make them take tough ones and rebound out of it and be able to put the pressure back on them.”

That Phoenix did.

And while fans could throw their arms up to worry that the win helped the Lakers’ playoff push in addition to hurting the Suns’ own draft position, the reality is that Utah is the team failing the Suns in their hopes to land two lottery picks. The Jazz are now 16 games back in the conference – same as Los Angeles – after they got blasted on Saturday by a Knicks team without Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire.

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