The following statement can no longer be disputed: when the Phoenix Suns bring the effort, they can beat anyone in the Western Conference. A night after a second half blowout at the hands of the Grizzlies, the Suns went into Houston and dominated the Rockets with their defense en route to 97-88 victory. This was a night of firsts. This was Phoenix’s first road win against a team over .500. It was Phoenix’s first win on the second night of a back-to-back this season. It was Eric Bledsoe’s first great game after returning from injury. This was also the first time the Rockets, the No. 1 offense in the NBA, have been held under 90 points this season. It was Houston’s least efficient game of the season as they shot a paltry 35 percent from the field.
The Suns defense was light years better than their last two games against Memphis on the road and Utah at home. Phoenix forced the Rockets into 22 turnovers, 10 of which were committed by Houston’s stars James Harden and Dwight Howard. P.J. Tucker had his best game of the season. He completely locked down the Beard from start to finish. Harden ended the night 3-of-17 from the field and 0-of-10 from downtown. Harden only made it to double figures because of his eight made free throws. Tucker was in Harden’s head, and by the end of the night, the former ASU star couldn’t even hit the rim on a wide-open look from downtown.
But Tucker’s contributions didn’t end there. He also grabbed four offensive boards, handed out four assists, and grabbed four steals in his 40 minutes of play. Despite playing last night, Tucker, Dragic, and Bledsoe each played 40 minutes and were instrumental to the Suns’ winning effort.
If not for Houston’s bench, this game would have been a blowout early. The Suns once again failed to contain a scrappy score-first guard, allowing Aaron Brooks to score 17 points off the bench. Guys like Brooks and Sacramento’s Isaiah Thomas seem to give Phoenix trouble at both ends of the floor. It’s something Phoenix will need to address as the season moves on.
The Suns led for most of the game, but tried to give it away more than once in the third and fourth quarters. It was a 12-0 Suns’ run late in the fourth that finally put the game out of reach for the charging Rockets. Marcus Morris hit two back breaking triples during that run which quashed Houston’s comeback hopes. Marcus was one of five Suns to hit at least two three in the game (Dragic, Bledsoe, Tucker, and Frye.) Between their 33 points from downtown and 26 points off the fastbreak, the Suns were an easy team to watch and a hard team to defend.
For more on this game, let’s answer our three preview questions.
Do the Suns win the third quarter?
Yes, no, and yes. Yes, the Suns outscored the Rockets in third quarter, something they have failed to do frequently this season, especially on the road. But Phoenix needed a 10-0 run late in the quarter to do it. The Suns allowed Houston to cut their 11-point halftime lead to just two before that final run pulled them out of their tail spin. The Suns were ice cold and turnover prone in coming out of halftime. If not for Howard and Harden having very off nights, this game could have ended up like the Memphis game, with the Suns getting trampled in the second half. But ultimately Phoenix removed the lid from the basket, took better care of the ball, and buckled down on D. The third quarter wasn’t pretty, but Phoenix gutted it out, took the Rockets’ best shot, and earned themselves a win.
How does Bledsoe bounce back from Tuesday’s abysmal performance?
It’s too early to say that Bledsoe is all the way back. But 20 points and seven assists on 50 percent shooting is certainly a big step in the right direction. Bledsoe was incredibly tentative in the first half. He was hesitant to shoot and hesitant to penetrate into the Howard-occupied lane. He looked more than a step slow with the ball in his hands. But for all that hesitation, his jumper was spot on and he led the Suns in scoring with eight points in the first quarter. In the second half, Bledsoe found his speed. He pushed the ball up the court, found open men and really looked more like himself. He was still a bit shaky driving to the hoop, but when the game got tight down the stretch, he was the steady hand on the wheel that guided the Suns to victory. This was a bounce back game for Eric, but he’ll need more performances like this one before we can pronounce him fully recovered.
Over/under 20 points and 15 rebounds for Dwight Howard?
Howard ended the night with 18 boards, but just tallied just 15 points on 4-11 shooting. Surprisingly, he was great from the free throw line hitting 7-of-9. Howard and the Rockets dominated the glass 54-40, which is par for the course for Phoenix. But Houston also had 21-8 edge on the offensive glass. That line in the box score, more so than anything else in this game, is the reason the Rockets hung around. The Suns simply gave them way too many second chance opportunities. Half of Howard’s made buckets came from his 10 offensive rebounds. But aside from doing a very poor job blocking out, Miles Plumlee and Channing Frye actually defended D12 very well. Before tip off, the announcers noted that Plumlee is actually leading Howard in blocks per game so far this year. Miles added to that lead as he blocked Howard twice, while Dwight recorded no blocks as all. Plumlee was all effort. He banged with Howard every minute he was on the floor, fighting for position and making Howard work incredibly hard for his shots. Frye was equally effective, but more cagey and veteran-like than Plumlee. Together they forced Howard into five turnovers and made him an offensive liability for the Rockets. Though the Suns’ frontline is undersized, the effort Phoenix’s big men expend on nights like tonight more than makes up for their deficiencies.