Detroit Pistons 110, Phoenix 108 – Josh Smith plays the villain

Josh Smith and Gerald Green battled back and forth in the final minute to see who could bring their team a hard fought victory. Though Green had a chance to win it at the buzzer, Smith and the Pistons prevailed 110-108.

Gerald Green gave the Suns their only lead of the game when he hit a three just a minute into the game. He very nearly gave them their second lead as time expired, but his leaning three-point attempt form the corner nicked the side of the back board on its way to the hoop. Another inch or two to the right, and the Suns could have won a game that early on looked like a blowout.

The first quarter of this game was the worst basketball Phoenix has played all season. That is not an exaggeration. The Suns gave up 32 points in the opening frame, the most they’ve allowed this season. 14 of those points came on fast breaks. Brandon Jennings dished out 11 first quarter assists, most of them for layups and dunks as 30 off Detroit’s 32 points were scored in the paint. See, I told you I wasn’t exaggerating.

On the other end, Andre Drummond recorded three blocks. The Suns turned the ball over four times, and failed to reach 40% shooting from the field. Down 14 points after just 12 minutes, Phoenix looked as though all their travel had finally caught up to them. They had no answer for Detroit’s size on offense or defense and seemed either uninterested or unable to get back on defense.

On offensive, teams have two choices when a shot goes up, they can commit players to hit the glass, or make sure they get back on defense. In the first half, the Suns did neither. The Pistons ran every chance they got, ending the game with 28 fast break points. At the same time, the Suns were helpless on the boards against Detroit’s frontcourt trio of Smith, Andre Drummond, and Greg Monroe. By halftime, Detroit was already +14 in rebounds. Detroit went into the locker room looking like a sleeper in the East while Phoenix looked like a team poised for a collapse in the wake of their star point guard’s injury. But the Pistons never built a lead bigger than 18 and never put the Suns away.

The comeback started midway through the third. Coach Hornacek decided to go small after starting Len and Plumlee together in the second half. He brought on Channing Frye and Ish Smith and the Suns shooters started to heat up. Detroit’s lead evaporated in less than 10 minutes as Phoenix hit 8 triples including four by Frye.  The Suns tied the game at 92 with just under seven minutes to play. Detroit responded, but once again could not put the Suns away. Channing Frye scored And 1’s in the post on two straight possessions which brought the lead down to five with under three minutes to play. After two consecutive stops and a pair of Dragic free throws, P.J. Tucker tied the game with a dagger from the corner. On the ensuing possession, Phoenix had incredible defensive effort, but a deflection bounced right to Josh Smith who nailed a three. With time winding down, Wednesday’s night’s savior, Gerald Green, was fouled on his attempt to tie the game and hit all three very clutch free throws. With four seconds left, the Pistons got the ball into the hot hands of Josh Smith who banked in an improbable leaner over Frye with just over a second left. Green’s attempt at a game winner missed the mark, and the Suns endured yet another heartbreaker.

Phoenix won the final three quarters, but it wasn’t enough to overcome their slow start. They played with incredible heart down the stretch, and that’s something this team can be proud of and build upon going forward. For more on this wild game, let’s answer our preview questions.

Can the Suns get to the rim?

Yes the Suns were very focused on getting to the rim right from the outset of this game. They ended the night 40 points in the paint. When the Suns weren’t getting their shot blocked, their penetration and interior passing led to easy baskets, including 12 points and at least four dunks for Miles Plumlee. The problem was that all the penetration put the Suns in bad positions to get back on defense. Andre Drummond’s five blocks not only made the Suns nervous around the hoop, but they also started fast breaks that led to easy buckets for Detroit. The penetration was an excellent offensive adjustment from last night’s game for Phoenix. The next step it to tweak their offensive rotations to ensure they are in proper position for transition D.

Can the Suns turn Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings into jumpshooters?

Early on, the Suns had no answer for Jennings or Smith. 15 of J-Smoove’s 25 points and 11 of Jennings’ 18 dimes came in the first quarter. P.J. Tucker did an admirable job on Smith throughout the game, but Josh was on fire, so it didn’t really matter if the Suns made him a jump shooter or not. As for Jennings, Dragic played off of him for most of the game, trying to encourage him to shoot jumpers. In the first half, Dragic being a step off simply allowed Brandon the space to find open teammates for easy buckets. But in the second half, Jennings started settling for jumpers instead of penetrating and dishing. That stagnated the Pistons’ offense and allowed Phoenix to get back in the game. Phoenix stuck to the game plan of keeping Smith and Jennings out of the key in as best they could, but given both guys’ ridiculous stat lines, the Suns can’t really claim a win in those battles.

Which Phoenix reserve will be the biggest weapon?

Phoenix’s bench was a huge reason this game was close at the end instead of a lopsided defeat. Marcus Morris had 17 points on 5-of-10 shooting. His jumper was falling, and he was one of the few Suns who wasn’t afraid to bang with Detroit’s bigs and get to the line. Ish Smith was the spark that ignited the comeback. He handed out six assists and committed no turnovers. Barbosa looked ever more comfortable handling and scoring the ball. Really the only disappointing bench player was Alex Len who committed five fouls in just seven minutes. Both he and Miles Plumlee were totally outclassed and physically dominated by Andre Drummond (13 points and 13 boards) and Greg Monroe (20 points and 12 boards).

As a final note, P.J. Tucker played his heart out in this game. He posted a double-double with 17 points and 11 boards. He hit big shots, didn’t shy away from all that size, and was the emotional leader for the struggling Suns. Without P.J., Phoenix would have gotten destroyed in this game, one of the wildest and most frustrating the Suns have played in a long time.

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