Suns balance rest and the playoff chase

PHOENIX — Two days after giving up 58.6 percent shooting to the Brooklyn Nets, the Phoenix Suns finally saw a defensive breakthrough. Jeff Hornacek’s team held the Orlando Magic to 40 percent shooting, and while a 48-minute effort would be preferred, the Suns did enough when it came down to it to pull off a blowout win.

Phoenix went on a 23-3 run beginning at the tail end of the third quarter and held Orlando to 5-for-17 shooting (29 percent) in the fourth while forcing eight turnovers in the period to beat the Magic 109-93 on Wednesday.

Before the game, Hornacek seemed worried about his road-weary Suns. He’s still clinging to keeping his team well-rested despite the necessity for wins with 14 games and just four home outings left.

Hornacek said his team’s defense perhaps suffered because players were so worried about individual defense too much; they were sticking to their own players rather than helping and trusting rotations to cover their own assignments on kick-outs. While Brooklyn made Phoenix’s lack of help pay with 52 points in the paint, the Suns held the Magic to 34 paint points Wednesday at U.S. Airways Center and fixed that issue for a day.

Urgency finally showed after two and a half sluggish quarters. Marcus Morris hit two threes at the end of the third quarter, and then Phoenix broke open the game quickly, scoring 25 fastbreak points and 24 off turnovers.

“It’s fun to watch,” Hornacek said. “When these guys are not worried about their own man, we’re helping each other out, cracking down, getting their hands on balls and all of a sudden we take off and go. Marcus got those threes today. To me, that’s the fun way to play.”

And the other issue, proper rest, was touched on in a victory that came as Phoenix brought itself within 1.5 games of both Memphis and Dallas — the Grizzlies slipped past the Jazz on Wednesday while the Mavs fell in overtime to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Goran Dragic led his team with 18 points and six assists in a team-high 34 minutes, and no other player played more than 25 minutes. Channing Frye scored 12, Miles Plumlee added 10 points and nine boards, and Gerald Green scored 14 off the bench. Eric Bledsoe, still working his way back from his knee injury, struggled from the field and still looked like he lacked explosion in finishing at the rim, but he still dipped and dribbled his way to opening up open shots for his teammates en route to six assists.

And for the first time this season, Hornacek displayed the playoff standings in the locker room.

“Now it’s time,” he said.

“We came in there at halftime and said, ‘Hey, if you think we’re a playoff team, this is the time you come out at the third quarter and you get after it and really try to take the game away.”

That Phoenix did.

Cell phones and outside noise hasn’t kept the Western Conference race standings out of the locker room, of course. Dragic even admitted that Suns owner Robert Sarver announced that the Mavs fell to the T-Wolves in the middle of Phoenix’s game on Wednesday. But Hornacek keeping the standings off the locker room whiteboard alludes to his thought process, perhaps.

He keeps holding back the reins to keep his players fresh and in incremental battles, playing a game of balance that’s especially fine for a first-year head coach.

“Games like this could really help us in terms of being resting going forward,” he said.

Finding a rhythm

Eric Bledsoe’s ball-handling has taken the pressure away from Dragic in finding his own shots as well as opening opportunities for his teammates. Still, the offense wasn’t quite clicking for the dual point guard lineup.

“I don’t think it’s back where it was earlier in the season yet,” Hornacek said. “It’s getting better. When we come down and if you don’t have something right away on a quick drag, swing the ball and get it to the other guy. That puts a lot of pressure on other teams.”

Quotable

“(We need to) take a little bit more emotional commitment to each play.” — Channing Frye on the Suns paying attention to greater detail and pushing harder each play.

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