PHOENIX — The US Airways Center was sold out for just the second time in 2013-14, but unlike the prior occurrence — a 106-85 win over the San Antonio Spurs back on Feb. 24 — the Phoenix Suns were unable to delight their faithful with a performance to remember Friday night.
As was the case against in their 109-93 victory the Orlando Magic Wednesday, the Suns didn’t appear all that interested in taking advantage of their inferior road opponent.
The Detroit Pistons were more than happy to play the part of the 25-42 squad — with a 10-of-26 night from the free throw line (tied for second-worst performance with at least 26 attempt since 1985-86), 43 percent shooting from the field and 18 turnovers — yet Phoenix’s knockout blow never really came.
Instead, it was more like a staggered series of smaller punches — which somehow managed to do the job.
Eric Bledsoe scored 15 of his team-high 23 points in the fourth quarter, four others reached double figures and the Suns hung on for dear life in a 98-92 slopfest of a game.
“Every game can’t be pretty,” Bledsoe said. “I keep saying that. We just have to tighten up everything. I think we’re going to be fine moving forward.”
The fourth-year pro was able to paint a pretty picture out of the result in large part because of his own late-game heroics.
Phoenix closed the game on a 9-4 run, highlighted by five straight from Bledsoe down the stretch, and pulled to within a half game of the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff spot out West.
“They didn’t make free throws, and we didn’t make free throws,” Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek said. “The game was a slow-down game. I don’t think it ever really got into the up-tempo game that we wanted. I told the guys a couple games ago that the rest of the season you’re going to have to scrap and claw and fight for every play, every possession to have a chance at making the playoffs.
“That’s kind of how tonight’s game went. We did a nice job at the end really scrapping, making tough shots and we got the boards at the key times.”
Do the Suns avoid a March Madness-type upset?
They did, but it took far more work than expected when considering their opponent came into the evening 17 games below .500 in a woeful Eastern Conference.
The frontcourt combination of Greg Monroe (16 points and eight rebounds) and Andre Drummond (13 points and 16 rebounds) coupled with an athletic, physical small forward in Josh Smith (15 points and 10 rebounds) seemed to give Phoenix fits yet again. And while Detroit had no issue when it came to self-inflicted wounds, dictating the game at a methodical half-court pace and dominating the glass to the tune of a 53-39 advantage was more than enough to keep the contest close throughout.
“They’re a good team,” said Goran Dragic, who finished with 20 points despite sitting the first six minutes of the fourth quarter. They might have only won 25 games, but if you look at their roster they have good players.
“We played well some parts of the time, but we still had a lot of problems getting big guys out of the way and getting rebounds. We got that 12 point lead in the quarter, but after that they had too many second chance points.”
Can Eric Bledsoe find his shot?
For the first time since his return from a 33-game absence, Bledsoe found his second gear as the game wound down. Bledsoe knocked down five of six shots in the final quarter of play, including a go-ahead three-point shot from the top of the key with 3:21 remaining.
“It feels good because we won the game,” Bledsoe said of his only three-point make of the night. “I think I was 0-for-4 before that one. I knew one was coming.”
It did come, but Bledsoe was absolutely right. Before his timely connection from downtown, the first-year Sun’s touch from beyond the arc was off — as it has been of late.
Of his 23 points, only seven came on jump shots outside of four feet. Several of his attempts from left or right of the arc fell well short and off the front rim, and his first three-point try — a rushed heave to beat the shot clock on Phoenix’s first possession of the evening –barely scraped the orange cylinder.
“Not yet,” Bledsoe said when asked if it feels like his shot has come back. “I was getting most of my shots at the rim. So you know not yet. I just have to stay focused and keep being aggressive.”
Was Wednesday’s performance a sign of progress or a one-hit wonder?
After a combined 14-point performance against Orlando, rookies Alex Len and Archie Goodwin finished with zero points in nearly 13 minutes of action Friday.
All of that playing time belonged to Len.
Outside of an early bucket by Monroe and alley-oop dunk by Drummond early in the second quarter, which came as a result of the former No. 5 overall pick over-committing near the charity stripe, Len had a nice overall night defensively. The same, though, could not be said for his play at the offensive end.
Officially, Len went 0-of-2 from the field, but it felt a lot worse than that. The 20-year-old center missed an ugly bunny hook following an offensive rebound, lost the ball in the paint after a beautiful feed from Bledsoe and was whistled for traveling on what would have been an uncontested dunk in the third quarter.
Needless to say, it wasn’t one of his finer performances.