PHOENIX – Finally finding their fire and aided by fresh legs, the Suns set themselves up for a thriller in U.S. Airways Center on Sunday. Right with the Brooklyn Nets until the final buzzer, the bounces didn’t go their way, and they found themselves on the bad side of a 102-100 final score.
Unlike the last two games, the bad bounces were of no fault of the Phoenix players.
Goran Dragic nearly put in his second career triple-double and was a point off his career high in scoring. He scored 31 points, dished 12 assists and grabbed nine rebounds, doing everything he could down the stretch to put the Suns ahead.
Down 100-97 on an inbounds play, the Nets broke up the plan to find Wes Johnson for a three-pointer, and in the paint Dragic hit a hook shot to bring Phoenix within a point with six seconds left. Brooklyn made their two foul shots, and Dragic hustled up the court with Jared Dudley in his sights.
But ahead three points, the Nets fouled him. Dragic went to the line with a plan of missing the second shot in hopes of an offensive board, and he executed the play as Hamed Haddadi tipped the offensive board to himself.
He missed the putback, and Brooklyn escaped.
So the Nets left Phoenix players holding their heads high but with the 48th loss on the year.
“We didn’t win the game,” interim coach Lindsey Hunter said, “but there were situations in the game that will help us grow.”
How the Suns came back from a double-digit deficit was one of those situations.
Brook Lopez dropped in six quick points in the first 2:30 of the game, forcing Hunter to swap Luis Scola out for Haddadi, and Phoenix responded and began forcing the issue, getting 10 fastbreak points in the opening stanza.
Andray Blatche did more damage to Scola to begin the second quarter, and Brooklyn scored on the first four shots they got off cleanly. Brooklyn led 55-43 at halftime and bumped the lead to as many as 16 in the third. It wasn’t so much the bench unit struggling this time around; Hunter said he put too much on rookie guard Kendall Marshall’s plate.
“That had a lot to do with it,” the coach said. “I’ve got to do a better job in that aspect of not having Kendall out there with a bunch of guys that he has to totally lead. I have to keep a support system on the court for him.”
But it wouldn’t come back to bite Hunter completely.
Johnson caught fire in the third, scoring 17 of his 21 in the period. After taking some flak from the coaching staff, the usually quiet and smiley swingman showed his intense side. With only one point to his name in the first half, Johnson made his first three with 10 minutes to play in the period and then in the final two minutes of the quarter hit four threes, the last of which came on an isolation play on the left wing that gave the Suns a 76-75 lead – it’s first of the second half – going into the fourth quarter.
“We were on him on the bench,” Hunter said. “You know, he passed up two shots, he was being timid, and I told him, ‘If you pass up another shot I’m pulling you out and you’ll never play the rest of the game.’
“The assistant coaches were on him, and he came to life,” Hunter added. “If that’s what we have to do, then that’ll be the threat we’ll hold over his head every night.”
So with Johnson’s explosion putting the Suns back in the hunt, Phoenix took it down to the wire.
Here’s how it went down:
Leading 100-97, the Nets blew up a play that included a double-screen atop the key to free Goran Dragic for a post touch. But action back on the side of the inbound pass saw Brooklyn switching all screens, including the red-hot Wes Johnson, and there was no pass out of the post for the Suns point guard.
“They started switching a lot and everybody was really just trying to look for the open guy,” Johnson said. “It really just messed up the flow.”
Dragic said he felt like the time was running out – it was – before any of the Suns could squeeze free, so he took the two-pointer. C.J. Watson hit two free throws, and with six seconds left, Dragic flew up the left side of the court and got his hip past Reggie Evans at halfcourt.
Now, if this were Steve Nash or Deron Williams for that matter, he might have pulled up for a three. Williams, mind you, hit a big transition three with five minutes left that gave Brooklyn a 90-87 lead.
But the Suns point said he was moving too fast. Plus, he had Jared Dudley running down the opposite wing ready to spot up for his patented transition three. Dragic penetrated to the foul stripe, but before he could whip a pass to Dudley, the Nets fouled him, forcing him into the one-make, one-miss situation at the line with three seconds left and a three-point deficit.
“Coach told me, ‘When you get the ball, try to penetrate, go fast,’” Dragic said. “I had a great look for JD but they foul me last second on my pass.”
He made his first foul shot, and perfectly missed the second. Haddadi got one of his long fingers on the ball, tipped it to himself but rushed the shot not knowing that he might have had more time.
“ I tried to push the guy, get the rebound,” Haddadi said. “And it come into my hands – I tip it up and it come into my hands. I thought the time’s finished … if I know the time, then I have a chance to find my rhythm, find my balance and make my shot.”
Markieff Morris shows flashes
Markieff Morris, perhaps one of the more disappointing Suns this season because of his inconsistency, showed up against the one of the NBA’s best pure rebounders in Reggie Evans. Morris grabbed 15 rebounds in the game, nine of which were offensive, and scored 10 points to go with two blocked shots.
At the same time, Morris went 5-of-18 from the floor and still showed that he both hung around the perimeter too much and lacked any confident moves in the paint. Lowlights of Morris included a badly-whiffed airball on a wide open three-point attempt and a drive and attempted bank of the glass that thudded too high as if Morris didn’t know where he was on the court.
“Even Markieff tonight – that’s how we need him to play every single night,” Hunter said. “We’re not going to let up. If he doesn’t do it (every night), we’re going to pull him out. Long as he does that, he’ll play 40 minutes.”