It began as a mirror image of the game on Friday against the Washington Wizards.
The Phoenix Suns played with weight on their shoulders. If it wasn’t passing up shots, it was second-guessing them before letting attempts fly. If it wasn’t trying too hard to push the ball forward when the play wasn’t there, it was allowing the Cleveland Cavaliers to do whatever they wanted in a fast-paced affair.
By halftime, it was 61-43, Cavaliers. By the time 48 minutes had expired the Suns left a Cavs team with a 99-90, very Cavs-like loss.
The Suns had matched last season’s win total just after the halfway point of the season, and they suddenly had momentum to start off a four-game road trip.
Phoenix used a 25-6 third quarter advantage to turn around an inept defensive effort in the first half. Channing Frye sparked a burst with three triples early in the third, Gerald Green broke out of a funk and the defense held Cleveland to 2-of-22 shooting. And when the Suns nearly blew an 11-point lead and the Cavs had climbed within 90-87 with less than two minutes to go, a three-pointer by Frye became the dagger that the Suns needed to escape with a sigh of relief.
It was the second-best comeback of the season, just behind a 21-point comeback win at Denver on Dec. 20. In that game, Markieff Morris led the way.
Same story on Sunday in Cleveland.
Morris scored 27 points and added 15 rebounds, his defense against a driving Kyrie Irving in the paint motivating and his aggressive attack that earned him 12 free throws symbolic of his impact.
Meanwhile, Irving struggled to finish in the paint, and even though Cleveland’s three big men hit double-digits on the rebounding front, the Suns won the total rebounding battle by seven boards.
The unsung hero might have been Tucker, who led the team in minutes played.
This is the way the Suns will have to grind out road wins. And it’s exactly what Tucker can exude upon his teammates. Tucker finished with 13 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and two steals. Green’s unselfishness shouldn’t be overlooked either, even though he hit just 4-of-14 shots and scored 12 points. The shooting guard also added five assists.
The Suns proved they could grind one out without running. They scored five fastbreak points, but with commitment on the boards on on the defensive end, it was doable despite a gloomy looking start.
To the preview questions posed by Jeff Sanders.
Can the Suns clean things up?
It was concerning that the Suns opened the game just as they had against the Washington Wizards. They pushed it too out of sorts, got the Cavs’ offense lubed up in doing so and then began frantically forcing things. Phoenix had 10 turnovers leading to 17 points for Cleveland, and had a difference in shooting percentages that went in the Cavs’ favor by 15 percent. The Suns fell behind 61-43 at the half.
The second-half was an about-face, as the Suns turned it over just two more times.
Does Anderson Varejao run wild?
Varejao was quiet throughout, and the duo of Miles Plumlee and Frye held him in check. He finished with two points on 1-for-9 shooting, and of course the biggest victory for Phoenix was in how the active Cleveland big man couldn’t get involved in earning second-chance points.
The Dragon vs Uncle Drew, who has the better night?
Dragic didn’t have his strongest of games and certainly was quiet in the second half. Defensively, he did his job on Irving, who finished with 24 points but went 8-for-23 from the floor.
Again, it was the team defense that did Irving in. Dragic applied the necessary ball pressure and chased him around screens, but it was the big men who kept him from scoring at the rim even though he, as usual, knifed his way through defenders.
Dragic ended the game with 15 points and seven assists.