The Suns never make things easy, do they?
This game sure had the feel of a rout when Leandro Barbosa hit a pair of shots to open the second quarter that put the Suns up by 19, but (surprise!) the Suns let the Hawks back in to make for a competitive second half before they ultimately pulled away for a 107-102 victory.
“We have to find a way not to get complacent,” Grant Hill told The Associated Press. “After knocking them out, we let them back into the game.”
In that same interview, Hill made a kind of surprising proclamation that makes sense after you think about it.
“We talked in November and December that we were a work in progress. I think we’re here now. We’re confident. We feel better about ourselves than we did four or six weeks ago.”
Aside from a stretch of porous basketball against Indiana culminating in Danny Granger’s game-winner, the Suns have taken care of business by winning six of seven mostly against teams they should beat.
Their only losses since Jason Richardson joined the club were the B-Roy 52-point, late collapse game in Portland, the Roger Mason game-winner contest and the Granger winner contest, a stretch in which Phoenix has also collected nine wins against teams like Orlando, Denver, Dallas and of course the Hawks (although all at home).
The push means when the Suns wake up Wednesday morning they will find themselves in fifth place in a bunched up Western Conference in which Nos. 5-8 are separated by one-half game, No. 9 Dallas is just one more game back and No. 2 Denver is a mere 2 1/2 games in front of No. 8 Houston.
That is what you would call a fluid situation, and a stretch of good basketball could be the difference between a prime seed and playing the Lakers in the first round (or worse).
Back to Hill’s comment, aside from the Suns’ inability to step on a team’s neck, I agree with him.
The Suns didn’t really know what they wanted to do in November adjusting to head coach Terry Porter’s system and slowing things down. Then right when they started to figure things out, they acquired J-Rich, and it took some time for him to get acquainted with his teammates and vice versa.
We started to really see that gelling in the Dallas game, and although the last two games should have been blowouts as well but weren’t, we’ve also seen stretches in them where Phoenix was a well-oiled machine.
Granted, most of this has been at home, so it will be interesting to see how these clicking Suns fare Thursday in Denver and Monday in Boston.
As for this game, the stat that jumps off to me most and proves Hill’s assessment is that the Suns assisted on 26 of 38 baskets (68.4 percent) and the Hawks assisted on just 10 of 37 (27 percent).
Most impressive, Steve Nash’s game-high total was only six – breaking his first run of four straight games with double-figure assists since early 2008 – and seven players assisted on multiple baskets. That’s a stat line you’ll rarely see, and it means the Suns played the definition of team basketball, with everybody doing a nice job of kicking it around to the open man.
The second biggest reason the Suns won was Hill, and it had nothing to do with his offense as he only scored two points before hitting four clutch free throws to ice it.
But he drew the primary defensive assignment on Joe Johnson and held the former Sun to 11 points on 4-for-21 shooting. The Suns were a team-high plus 10 with Hill on the floor, and it’s easy to see why that was the case considering his low scoring output.
The Suns also received major contributions from Barbosa, who needed just 24 minutes to score 22 points, hitting eight of 11 shots and four of five three-pointers.
I was happy to see Barbosa enter the game for the final couple minutes of the first and third quarters, as I feel he can get in a better rhythm when he doesn’t sit for entire quarters at a time. Plus, Barbosa has been on a tear of late, averaging 17.1 points per game over his last seven, reaching double figures in all of them and at least 20 points three times.
Yet aside from the first two games of that stretch when Nash was out, his time has ranged between 19 and 24 minutes. The Blur is back after some early season struggles, and I’d love to see him play closer to 30 minutes, possibly giving Nash a bit more rest.
Staying with the bench theme, Matt Barnes started to break out of his slump by hitting a pair of three-pointers in three attempts, while also grabbing 10 rebounds in 23 minutes and dishing four assists. Good to see him crashing the boards as he works through his shooting difficulties.
“My shot hasn’t been going as of late, so I just try to provide energy, a spark off the bench,” Barnes told Suns.com. “I try to go out there, rebound and play defense, and get other guys involved. That’s kind of what I did tonight.”
Nash appeared more aggressive in this one, going for his highest point total since November (23 points) while also facilitating the offense as usual.
And then there’s the Shaq Daddy, whose consecutive free-throw streak ended at 12, but that did not stop him from putting up 26 and 10 on a Hawks front line missing Al Horford. Amare added another 17, but it was the Big Cactus who had the Hawks talking afterward.
“Shaq is playing like the old Shaq, and when he is down there making offensive moves like he did in Orlando and Miami it makes it tough to defend,” Josh Smith told Suns.com.
But all of that almost didn’t matter as the game was tied at 98 with two minutes left after Mike Bibby hit a pair of clutch threes, and I started to think this was turning into the Indiana Game Part II.
Instead the Suns made it a repeat of Sunday’s win over the Clippers by going to their go-to players to get good shots while the Hawks missed tougher ones.
Shaq got fouled and made a free throw, Nash nailed an opener jumper and Amare knocked down a short J in the lane, and with that the Suns made sure they only suffered one blemish during their patsy seven-game stretch.