Apparently, the Phoenix Suns need to stare death in the eye to see just how close they are to missing the playoffs. A miserably slow start, especially on the defensive end, made a rally necessary Sunday against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Markieff Morris swiped at Kevin Love, who for the second time in a row put it on himself to make a play out of the elbow. With 48 seconds left, Love lost the ball, and Goran Dragic fed it upcourt to Eric Bledsoe for a layup that broke a 118-all tie.
That’s how Phoenix polished off a stolen game in Minneapolis to stay a half-game back of the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference playoff race.
Perhaps the Suns punched back from a 22-point deficit because there was so much game left thereafter.
Minnesota led by 22 less than three minutes into the second quarter as Phoenix came out of the gates facing backward. Bledsoe picked up two quick fouls defending Ricky Rubio, Channing Frye got beaten up by a determined Kevin Love, and nobody other than Goran Dragic could make much of an impact on either end.
The bench unit eventually scraped away all the crud left on the court by the starters, but the Suns needed its two point guards and Morris to make up the rest of the ground. Morris gave Phoenix a punch from the power forward slot, scoring 15 of his team-high 25 in the first half, and Ish Smith attacked from his first minute of playing time.
Finally the Suns had some pop in their legs.
Trailing 73-62 at halftime, Phoenix got within 85-80 in the middle of the third quarter, but the T-wolves quickly extended the lead back to double-digits.
And as it became clear that the Suns’ bigs couldn’t succeed on either end, Hornacek simply went away from playing bigs at all. Phoenix went a stretch of the fourth quarter with a combination of the Morris twins, Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker and the two point guards to make Minnesota’s big men defend out to the perimeter.
Dragic finished off a 10-0 run with a three-pointer that gave the Suns a 107-106 lead with just seven minutes remaining, and after some back-and-forth, the defense allowing 57 percent shooting through 24 minutes came to life in the final minutes.
In the fourth quarter, Minnesota hit 23 percent (5-of-21) from the floor while Phoenix outscored it 34-17. And that was that.
The Bledsoe factor showed after he returned from foul trouble. He scored 20 points to go with five assists while piling up a plus-28 plus-minus score — no other Sun finished higher than P.J. Tucker’s plus-14 — and Dragic added 18 and six dimes.
Will the Suns keep Dieng and Love off the glass?
Not a bit in the first half. Kevin Love was more than halfway to a triple-double after the first quarter, and Minnesota scored 15 second-chance points in the first half. Love eventually cooled down. He scored 36 points and had 14 boards, but went 11-for-27 from the floor.
When the Suns went small, Dieng found himself on the bench despite putting in an effective six points and nine rebounds. And Phoenix ended up out-rebounding Minnesota 42-38, catching up in second-chance points to lose that battle just 21-16.
How easily do the shots come for Phoenix?
Quite easily, but it didn’t matter much early on. Phoenix shot 61 percent in the first half but still trailed by 11 points thanks to 57 percent yielded to the T-Wolves — and then all the second opportunities provided by Love and Dieng.
The Suns ended up shooting 57.5 percent for the game and holding the T-Wolves to just 44 percent.
Will Frye or Markieff Morris provide a spark?
Frye was part of a starting unit that couldn’t get up for the early start, and he scored six points and picked up four fouls in just 15 minutes.
Markieff Morris, on the other hand, continued to have success against the Timberwolves. He pumped in 15 points in the first half as the second unit chipped away at the Minnesota lead. Morris hit 10-of-13 from the floor and hit all three of his three-point attempts.
Markieff also added two blocks and five boards to lead Phoenix. Brother Marcus also played well, scoring 11 for the game as the Suns attempted to make it a game.