PHOENIX – Where the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors began this season and where the teams stand now couldn’t have created a bigger fork in the road. Stephen Curry missed two late free throws as Golden State staved off the Suns 87-85 in the season opener.
“I can’t recall (the Halloween game), it was so long ago,” Warriors coach Mark Jackson, a friend of Lindsey Hunter’s, said beforehand. “It’s been a very fulfilling season.”
It’s likely fulfilling because of growth. Phoenix, which only wishes it hasn’t taken steps backward since that first game, surprisingly found itself in the same down-to-the-wire situation on Friday night with only six games left in the season.
Again, the Suns fell short. Again, the Warriors got a gritty win, this time by storming back from an 18-point second-quarter deficit to drop Phoenix 111-107 at U.S. Airways Center on Friday. Shooting a white-hot 61 percent from the floor wasn’t even good enough for Phoenix, which didn’t make the plays down the stretch to end what is now an eight-game losing skid.
The Warriors, with another sign of growth, took a step closer to building their playoff identity by making the few plays necessary to win. The Suns – coaches and players – are still searching for answers, as 22 turnovers doomed them despite Goran Dragic tying a career high with 32 points and Michael Beasley pouring in 25.
“I didn’t think it was so much as a mental lapse as trying to do too much at times and getting in a situation where we’re being trapped,” said interim coach Lindsey Hunter, before adding, “and maybe we’re not accustomed to being trapped.
“It’s inexperience in those situations that shows itself. But it’s good for us to go through.”
Matchup issues the Suns posed gave them the big lead in the first half, but they also resulted in said traps.
Jackson wanted his Warriors to start fast, and they did with a dunk and a layup in transition to force the Suns into an early timeout. Golden State led 16-11 before the Suns went on a 17-4 spurt behind an attacking Dragic. He had 15 first-quarter points to eclipse his total from Wednesday’s 126-101 loss to the Clippers, but the matchup with Curry was as expected.
The Warriors point guard did his damage with his passing early on, recording five assists in the first quarter and finishing with 15. Yet, it was more of the Warriors’ seven turnovers, the Suns’ three blocks and hot shooting that gave Phoenix a 37-23 lead after the first quarter.
The gameplan against Curry went well for the most part, making him a passer and not a scorer.
“With our big guy, we plugged (the long jumpers) so the big guy stayed down,” said Dragic, who got the assignment. “He was able to go to the middle of the paint so when he’s at the mid-range shot, you know, that’s a bucket for him. We tried to help and he find open guys. When we blitzed him, he finds Lee and he made some open jumpers.”
Beasley followed up what Lindsey Hunter called his best overall game with seven points in the first quarter, including a half-court bank before the buzzer.
Phoenix led by 18 as Beasley’s hot streak continued into the second, but the Warriors efficiently chopped at the lead with a 15-5 run in less than four minutes to bring their deficit to single digits. Golden State was within five but Phoenix took a 64-55 lead to the half as Dragic and Beasley sizzled with 21 and 19 points respectively.
Dragic hit all seven of his first-half shots and Beasley hit 9-of-12.
The game of matchups continued with Curry hitting a transition three-pointer with six minutes to go in the third to give Golden State its first lead in the second half. An 18-point swing in the third quarter – the Suns committed 10 turnovers leading to 11 points – saw the Warriors take an 87-78 lead to the fourth as Phoenix only put in 14 points during the period. That was a point less than Klay Thompson scored in the third.
Golden State made defensive adjustments to combat Dragic and Beasley. The duo only shot 11 combined times in the second half.
“They did a great job of doubling when they had to,” Hunter said. “They brought weakside help over early to try to deter Goran from penetrating. I think we countered, eventually found ways to get our guys involved.”
Eventually was too late.
The Suns crawled back and was within two points after putting together a few stops. But another one of those surprising double-teams forced Beasley into nearly one turnover that he recovered, but he again threw a pass into traffic. On the other end, Curry drew attention off a pick-and-roll that pulled Jared Dudley off Jarrett Jack, giving him enough space to get off a dagger three-pointer.
“They knock down tough, tough shots and time and time again when we made runs, they did,” Hunter said.
Phoenix had a few more chances to win, even forcing Curry into throwing the ball in the backcourt after an inbound play. But Jackson’s team, with a year of experience under their head coach, went back to the basics – it was only what Phoenix could wish to see in the coming years.
“I got a lot of respect for Lindsey,” Jackson said before the game. “I think they’ve taken his identity and put it on the floor. At the end of the day, it’s moments like this that build a foundation. People look at us and say we’re a playoff team.
“If they stay true to the process, it’s going to play itself out. Even though we won 23 games last year – with our approach, with our mentality, with our habits – if you stay true to it, you’ll be rewarded.”
Kind words, and encouraging even. But still, it’s hard to believe as the Suns reached their lowest point of the season yet.