PHOENIX — More than an hour before Monday night’s contest against the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns interim coach Lindsey Hunter delivered a rather reflective pre-game media session in which he stressed the importance of having his team finish the season strong. He spoke of privilege over right, sprinting to the finish line and seizing the chance to compete.
It sounded nice and rather uplifting for coachspeak, but given the fact that the Suns entered the night losers of four straight by an average margin of 20 points per contest, Hunter’s optimistic take seemed a little off base.
48 minutes of basketball later, the Suns backed up their head coach’s every syllable with an eye-opening 99-76 win over a Lakers team that came in to US Airways Center with 11 wins in its previous 14 games.
“We had a great team effort tonight,” Hunter said. “I think every guy on our bench, the bench, guys that didn’t play, everybody was very supportive. That is the type of team building we are trying to get here. That is the type of culture that we are trying to have…Every guy that played really really did a good job, an exceptional job.”
While the Suns rode a huge fourth-quarter spurt much the same way they did when the two teams met in Phoenix back on January 30, it was how the purple and orange put themselves in position to win through the first three quarters that was downright impressive.
A little over six minutes into the contest, it became abundantly clear that Dwight Howard was going to have his way in the post. The seven-time All-Star drew two quick fouls on Jermaine O’Neal, had nine relatively easy points and held a firm grasp on the glass (five rebounds). Even without Kobe Bryant, who sat out his second straight game due to a severely sprained left ankle, the Lakers looked rather comfortable offensively relying on Howard and former Sun Steve Nash (10 first quarter points) at the offensive end.
But leave it to the man who wasn’t even on the roster the last time the divisional foes faced one another to change the complexion of the contest.
With O’Neal on the bench to start the second quarter and his team down four, Hunter opted to play backup center Hamed Haddadi extended minutes. While Haddadi gave up plenty of quickness and athleticism to Howard in the post, the 7-foot-2 center presented a different look — one that somehow gave the Lakers center plenty of problems.
Haddadi held Howard without a field goal in the second frame, and Mike D’Antoni’s lone post threat recorded only one point and two rebounds in the period. But Haddadi wasn’t the only reserve who played a major part in the momentum-shifting second quarter. Jared Dudley and Kendall Marshall combined to score 16 off the pine, including 4-of-6 from three-point range.
While Phoenix only led by three heading into halftime, the game had certainly turned.
The Suns extended their lead to as many as 11 points in the third quarter thanks to a balanced offensive attack (five players scored four or more points) and tremendous team defense. O’Neal went blow-for-blow with Howard in the paint, P.J. Tucker took Jodie Meeks out of the game and forced Steve Blake to hit tough shots and Goran Dragic had no problem sticking with his former teammate and mentor, Nash (one assist and no field goals).
After Blake and Antawn Jamison whittled the deficit down to five to end the third quarter with back-to-back three-point shots, the Suns turned to another super sub down the stretch.
Entering the final quarter, Luis Scola had been limited to just eight minutes of action (no points and one rebound). But the Argentinian played like a man possessed at both ends of the court over the last 12 minutes of the contest. The first-year Sun frustrated Howard in the post by consistently fronting him. The tactic paid off as the former No. 1 overall pick couldn’t free himself to catch any entry passes and finished with no points and two personal fouls in the fourth quarter.
At the offensive end, Scola caught fire away from the basket. With Howard essentially baiting him to shoot, Scola hit five jumpers from 11-feet or further, including a three-point shot from the top of the key that all but put the game out of reach at 92-75 with 3:38 remaining.
By himself, Scola outscored (14-10) and outrebounded (8-7) the Lakers in the fourth quarter. The Suns finished the game on a 28-10 run and in the process notched their fourth straight home victory over Los Angeles.
“He was tremendous,” Hunter said of Scola. “I was kind of nervous having him on Dwight because I knew he had a size advantage. You can never measure a guy’s heart, and he showed it tonight. He let us coaches know that we really don’t know what we are doing.”
While Nash was more aggressive in his second return trip to the Valley — had a game-high 19 points — he left US Airways Center with a another defeat and a crooked number (6-of-17 from the field) by his name on the stat sheet.
“It was a tough night shooting the ball obviously,” Nash said. “We had a lot of great looks; a lot of balls go in the basket and come back out. We just hit the wall; it was our ninth game in 14 days in seven cities and you could just kind of see the wheels fall off.”
Although the Suns’ old guard struggled to find his shot, their new guard continues to look more and more comfortable behind the three-point arc. Kendall Marshall tied a career-high with 11 points and admitted he’s starting to get acclimated to his increased role.
“I’ve been putting in the work but it just means a lot to get the kind of encouragement I’ve gotten from my head coach,” Marshall said. “With us not really being in the playoff picture it’s all about getting ready for next season. As a young player, I’m just trying to improve from game to game.
“This one is nice and we can celebrate it until midnight but that’s the beauty of the NBA. In an 82-game season, you already have to focus on the next one, and we have a Washington team coming to town that just blew us out .”
- Following another impressive performance Monday night, Goran Dragic now leads the league with eight 10-assist games since the All-Star break.
- The Lakers have been held to under 90 points only two times in their last 54 games. Both have come in their last to trips to Phoenix. Los Angeles’ 76 points were the fewest the Suns have allowed an opponent all season.
- With the win, Phoenix moved from the fourth-worst to the sixth-worst record in the NBA. And sadly, although the Suns were victorious in convincing fashion, their chances of earning second lottery pick did not increase. While the Lakers lost Monday night, they didn’t fall in the playoff standings due to a Knicks’ win in Utah.