Until Eric Bledsoe returns from his knee sprain, the Phoenix Suns seem destined to look as they have against Chicago on Tuesday and Minnesota on Wednesday. What they looked like was a talent-deficient squad that now has a full roll of scouting tape on the record. They also looked like a team scrapping desperately on the road and on the tail end of a back-to-back.
With big shots from Goran Dragic and Channing Frye, Phoenix hung close. With a little defensive pressure on tired legs, the Suns forced turnovers. And with a little luck for the ball to bounce the Suns’ way, Gerald Green took a dribble-handoff from Markieff Morris for a 20-foot baseline jumper with four seconds left for the lead.
One stop later, the Suns were off to the locker room with a gutsy 104-103 win against the Timberwolves, a team that very well could make a push to challenge Phoenix’s playoff eligibility.
Yet, it wasn’t easy. It didn’t matter that Phoenix held Minnesota to 32.6 percent in the first half. The Suns only led 53-47 because they only hit 37.5 percent of their own attempts.
Rick Adelman’s beefy frontline struggled against the Suns’ length for much of the game, but down the stretch the T-Wolves forced the Suns to match up. In doing so, Jeff Hornacek’s team lost the ability to play with five versatile offensive options with Miles Plumlee in to defend Nikola Pekovic.
Dragic led the offense with 26 points and nine assists, and it was his one-on-one battle with Ricky Rubio that was the difference late. Dragic clutched at his shorts, but as the game wore on he got more aggressive. He forced a turnover with four minutes to play that led to an And 1 opportunity, and after Dragic missed the free throw, Phoenix trailed 97-92.
When the Suns climbed within a point with less than a minute left, Dragic chased an attacking Rubio under two screens and forced him into a dump-off attempt that found itself in the hands of the Suns, who then had the ball with a possession’s worth left.
Phoenix lost the third quarter 30-19 but shot 57 percent in the fourth. Dragic scored 12 fourth-quarter points to offset a nine-point quarter from Pekovic that seemingly marked a loss for the Suns.
There were so many talking points, but here are three pivotal thoughts posed by Dave Dulberg prior to the game.
How much will Leandro Barbosa play if at all?
Barbosa took the spot Archie Goodwin previously owned since the Eric Bledsoe injury. He was the first sub off the bench. And that meant Goodwin didn’t see any time at all. The Blur played 13 minutes and got up six quick shots in his first-half stint. He finished with three points and three assists in his return to the Suns.
Will Marcus Morris wake up any time soon?
Offensively, yes. Defensively, not much. Morris scored 10 points in 24 minutes, but on his first defensive possession was slow to react and lost Kevin Martin running across the screen. In general, the play represented the frustration of watching the Morris twins. When one is on, the Suns have a decent bench. When both are on, the Suns are really, really good.
But there’s been a defensive dropoff with the bench unit in the last few weeks, and the Morris twins are at the heart of the issues. With Alex Len back in the fold – and looking even better than he did at the beginning of the year in how well he’s moving – it was Markieff who took a hit in the minutes department. He played 13 minutes until he was forced into action for the fouled out Miles Plumlee. In those 13 minutes, just one more than Len, Morris managed to launch 10 shots, making just three.
Then the other side — the good part — of the Morris twins showed up. Markieff locked in and made the big play at the end. He caught a bad pass from Dragic, who got hung up on a broken final play, and then was aware and calm enough to hand the ball to Green, who hit the fadeaway to give the Suns a 104-103 advantage.
Can the Suns neutralize half of the Timberwolves’ frontcourt?
Pekovic and Love combined to shoot an abysmal 3-for-20 in the first half, and Love finished with a hand-wave leading to a technical foul and then a frustrating personal on a textbook Dragic pumpfake. Frye and Plumlee’s verticality bothered the T-Wolves’ duo in the post.
Part of it might have been the Minnesota’s big men being forced to defend the Suns on the other end of the court. Hornacek’s crew repeatedly fed the Plumlee in the post, where the second-year center had reasonable success shooting over the top of Pekovic if he had deep enough position. Frye got hot with two early three-pointers as the T-Wolves lost him in transition, and he continued to fire darts once the defense began attempting to cover him.
Frye’s dribble pull-up game may never have been better.
To the T-Wolves’ credit, Pekovic continued to get touches and as the Suns refused to double-team. After an And 1 for Pekovic that drew a foul on Plumlee with less than five minutes to play, P.J. Tucker finally came down from across the court on the next T-Wolves post touch, helping a now-fronting Plumlee. But a cross-court pass found Corey Brewer for an open three, giving Minnesota a 97-88 lead that seemed to seal the deal — then the Suns closed with a 16-6 run.
Pekovic finished with 17 points on 6-of-16 shooting. Love did worse, going 4-for-20 for 15 points.
Meanwhile, Frye scored 22 and hit 5-of-10 three-pointers. Plumlee had nine points and nine rebounds in an effort that should be judged by Pekovic’s numbers rather than his own.
And to top it off, Phoenix actually had more second-chance points (17-12).