PHOENIX – Generally, the Suns are just a bad matchup with their athleticism alone.
But against a versatile team in the Dallas Mavericks and with the need to pick at mismatches in an almost forced manner without Eric Bledsoe or Leandro Barbosa, the chess match was set going into Friday’s game.
It’s just halfway through the season, but you could tell the veteran Mavs led by coach Rick Carlisle sensed they needed a win. They got it with a 110-107 Suns loss that became an offensive slugfest at U.S. Airways Center.
“Hornacek’s done a fantastic job,” Carlisle coach said of the Suns before the game. “They’re a hard-nosed, hard playing team. They are one of the more physical teams in the league. People don’t talk much about that. They defend well, they go after rebounds and they have a toughness, and I know Jeff’s had a lot to do with that.”
The compliment didn’t come across as your standard “every team in the NBA can win any night” type of a way. And it showed during the game.
Carlisle acted as if he meant it.
Dallas came into the game less than a percentage point behind Phoenix in the Western Conference standings, and the Mavs coach brought his best stuff.
Just after starting the second half, Carlisle quickly subbed in speedy rookie point guard Shane Larkin, who toasted Dragic, the admittedly poor defender of small points guards, for nine points. Larkin ended the night with 16 points and five assists.
Carlisle went with a small lineup that saw former Suns forward Shawn Marion score 12 points against the less limber Channing Frye in the third quarter. When Hornacek finally subbed out Frye and Miles Plumlee to match up with the small lineup, Carlisle came back with Nowitzki and DeJuan Blair.
It set the Suns off-kilter just enough to strike their rhythm that they had in exploiting their own mismatches, such as Gerald Green in the post and Goran Dragic in the fullcourt.
Phoenix shot a respectable 45 percent and got 29 points from Dragic and 23 points and 10 rebounds off the bench from Markieff Morris. But the Suns couldn’t do enough on the other end — the mismatches seemed to be the difference. Dallas shot 53 percent for the game, and Phoenix didn’t have an answer for Monta Ellis, who shot 10-for-20 from the floor to score 24 points to go with seven assists, two blocks and two steals.
The Suns’ loss was like a playoff game. And the down-to-the-wire affair showed just where they stand. Right now, after P.J. Tucker’s game-tying three-pointer spun out after a little luck went Phoenix’s way, that’s a little short.
Here’s what I wondered heading into the game and how it panned out.
Can Phoenix again stop the three-point shot?
The three-point differential was bound to be a key in the game of one offense that needs it and another that shoots it efficiently on most nights. The Mavs shot it well a game prior in scoring 127 points against the Clippers, and they weren’t too shabby on Friday night, hitting 9-of-24 for 37.5 percent.
Meanwhile, the Suns struggled mightily. So it was good then that one of the key three-point shooters, Gerald Green, looked to score in the post and off drives early on. Green didn’t have another 28-point game, but he did his job just fine.
The bigger issue was the lack of production from Channing Frye, who had the defensive attention from Dirk Nowitzki and was well-covered on pick-and-roll action throughout. Even the play out of the halftime break with Frye setting one of two screens and then popping didn’t confuse the Mavericks as intended.
Frye finished with six points on 2-of-6 shooting.
Will the Suns bench stand up to Brandan Wright and Vince Carter?
The bench unit didn’t pose the same drop-off as it had in past games. It started with Markieff Morris putting together his second strong outing in a row. As he did Wednesday against the Lakers, Morris started inside-out. Hornacek wasn’t so much worried about Brandan Wright despite the lanky big man putting 18 points on the Suns last time the two teams met. Rather he was worried Wright would score in pick-and-roll action off pocket passes.
Instead of Monta Ellis dishing to his teammates he was hot himself. On the other end, Morris attacked Wright, once having the rare chance of ourmuscling a taller player under the hoop enough to score on an And 1 play. Marcus Morris followed his brother’s lead, and at halftime they combined for 14 points and 10 rebounds.
On top of Markieff Morris’ double-double, Marcus added 13 points and seven rebounds.
How does the guard rotation look?
Goran Dragic sat out the second quarter until three minutes remained and an Ish Smith-led unit actually had brought the 36-30 deficit after the first quarter down to 51-50. Smith earned himself some run alongside Dragic for another minute.
Smith ended up playing 21 minutes, while Archie Goodwin earned eight. Dragic posted a reasonable 38