Phoenix Suns 119, Houston Rockets 112 – Releasing the frustration

PHOENIX – For once, it was only about basketball.

Goran Dragic was relaxed in the locker room before a meeting against his former team, the Houston Rockets. He was already talking about his offseason where he’ll represent his Slovenian national team in Europe, and considering the Suns have already conducted some exit interviews, it was clear that the team is already looking ahead to the summer.

For once, it felt like the weight of a lost season wasn’t upon them.

Dragic mused that he’d wish it was that simple for the whole season, but as you might’ve guessed, Phoenix had spent more time having team meetings than heading home satisfied after wins.

So for just the 25th time this season, the Suns went home with smiles on their faces.

In their final home contest, four of the Suns starters scored 20 or more points in a 119-112 Monday night win against the Rockets. Dragic torched his former squad for 21 points and 14 assists. Nine assists came in the first quarter, and nine points came in the fourth after the point guard returned after losing 10 minutes of the third quarter to get three stitches above his left eye.

“We owe that to the fans,” Dragic said in the lively locker room. “Everybody was involved, everybody was making shots. (On) defense we were talking, we were playing well. If we would play like this earlier, for sure we’d be close to the playoffs.”

The Suns used the fast-paced Rockets break against them, getting stops and making hard pushes the other way. Luis Scola scored 26 total and 21 in the first half. He also grabbed 15 rebounds. Markieff Morris played his best game yet as a Sun, scoring 20 but doing his damage with five steals, six blocks and seven rebounds. Meanwhile, P.J. Tucker scored a career-high 24 – mostly in the paint – and held James Harden to a frustrating 5-for-18 shooting performance.

“It’s just trying to contain Harden and Parsons when they push the ball. We really just wanted to get back, get a stop and then go,” Tucker said despite being heckled about his white dress pants by Jermaine O’Neal, a sign that the Suns had already released the tensions of frustration.

“Jermaine O’Neal wouldn’t know anything about that,” Tucker shot back.

Phoenix held the Rockets without a field goal in the final 4:13 of the first quarter and took a 39-28 lead to the quarter break. After Harden went for 12 points in the opening frame, the second quarter called for Lin to attack Kendall Marshall. The Rockets point guard went for 13 in the second quarter and finished with 20, but the Suns always had an answer – they were loose, and they were effective.

The Suns led 67-61 at the half.

Two minutes into the third quarter, a charge taken by Dragic on Harden led to a cut above the Suns point guard’s left eye that warranted three-stitches. Marshall replaced him, and to the rookie’s credit, Phoenix grew its lead from three to a 90-83 advantage heading to the fourth quarter.

Dragic returned for the final quarter as a shooting guard, playing in a smallball lineup with Marshall, Tucker, Dudley and a mix of Wes Johnson and Morris down the stretch. The move shadowed the Rockets’ lineup that, essentially, placed Carlos Delfino and Chandler Parsons in the paint. Those two played with Lin, Harden and Patrick Beverley.

Houston, with Harden sitting on the bench, pulled within two points with six minutes left in the game, but a 6-0 Suns run forced Kevin McHale’s hand. He pulled Harden off the bench, but Phoenix had enough room to win a foul-shooting game down the stretch.

Marshall played well alongside Dragic. He too had one of his five-best games of the year, attacking during the fourth quarter when switches called for it.

“We recognized the switch, I yelled for them to open the floor up and wanted to see him attack,” Hunter said. “He made two great decisions, attacking the rim and pulling up for a short jumper.”

Marshall finished with eight points and four assists off the bench.

For once, P.J. Tucker wasn’t questioning why the Suns weren’t playing hard. They earned a decent enough standing ovation from not too shabby a crowd. It was as if the Suns fans still on the bandwagon felt the pain of a poorly-constructed roster. Even they were looking to next season.

“Definitely feels good to get one here,” Tucker said afterward.

O’Neal stood behind Tucker during interviews, redressing himself after sitting out a game for no reason given on the injury report. The Suns aren’t pushing a banged-up veteran to play in a meaningless game. Their offseason has already started.

Yet for one rare moment, the Suns could laugh.

“I ain’t seen no white pants since Miami Vice,” O’Neal told Tucker.

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