I doubt anybody in the organization would have been particularly happy about a 3-3 road trip when the Suns’ plane took off in Phoenix a week and a half ago, but considering how grim things looked as late as Sunday at 4 p.m. MST at least this trip wasn’t a complete disaster.
Yes, the Suns’ effort was deplorable in Boston and Charlotte and they dropped a game they controlled early in New York, but after beating Washington 103-87 to complete the six-game roadie they’re right back where they started in terms of wins and losses.
“It is nice to come off of this road trip with two wins and have that confidence back as opposed to going home with a loss,” head coach Terry Porter told Suns.com. “This team has always responded well when they are faced with adversity. Although we just had two disappointing losses, we still had a chance to finish the trip at .500 and they finished it tonight with a win.”
This game was very tight through the first three quarters, but then the Suns tightened up the screws on their defense in the fourth quarter for the second game in a row, outscoring Washington 28-14 in the fourth.
A day after holding the Hawks scoreless over 5:22 of the fourth, the Suns allowed just six points from the 8:33 mark of the fourth when they led by just five until Dominic McGuire hit a jumper with 28 seconds left and his team trailing by 16.
That’s an extremely encouraging sign, because you know the Suns just had to have been beat heading into the game playing their eighth game in 12 days in eight different cities.
They sure looked tired early on when jumper after jumper fell just short, and the Suns’ broadcasters reported that Shaq said he felt a bit fatigued before tipoff.
I doubt any of the Wizards are buying that after the Daddy went for 29 points, eight boards and three blocks while hitting 10 of 14 field goals and most impressively a Nash-esque 9 of 10 foul shots. The Suns were a team-high plus 24 with Shaq on the floor, and once again we got “Shaq turns back the clock” leads from the national media.
With the way Shaq is playing this month, averaging 20.5 points and 9.4 boards per game, on top of his almost daily proclamations about how good he feels and how he wants to play another three or four more years, I think that clock is pushed back pretty permanently.
“He is playing well right now,” Nash told Suns.com. “I don’t know how many people can guard him when he is playing like he has recently. We have to find that balance of going to him and spreading the ball around when they are doubling him.”
Not bad for a player I didn’t expect to even suit up tonight based on the Suns’ plan to rest him during one end of a back-to-back. Amazingly, Shaq has played in the last seven games in seven different cities, involving two different sets of back-to-backs.
And he’s been better than ever in those games as opposed to some real clunkers earlier when playing on consecutive days.
But to me, he wasn’t even the most impressive Suns big man in this game, as Amare Stoudemire unleashed his first “Gorilla Game” of the road trip, particularly on the glass.
Amare corralled 11 boards by halftime and finished with a game-high 15 (four offensive) to go with 22 points on 9-for-13 shooting and three swats.
“He was good tonight and he did a good job of attacking the offensive boards,” Porter told Suns.com. “That is exactly what we need. We really need his presence on the boards.”
Excluding the Charlotte game in which he grabbed nine, that’s only one more than his four-game total from the rest of this trip and only the second time since Christmas that the 6-foot-10 freak of nature reached double figures in boards.
Like I wrote after Amare’s season-high 20-board performance Dec. 6 against Utah, it’s games like this that make his four- and five-rebound games such head scratchers. Amare Stoudemire should be a very good rebounder, just at times it looks like he doesn’t care to be.
At least that’s my only explanation, and in this game you could tell he was focused, especially with the three shots he blocked while actually looking like a capable help defender.
Speaking of turning back the clock, Nash finished off a heck of a road trip with a 15-assist affair to go with 14 points and five boards.
Nash recorded assist games of 19, 18 and 13 on the trip to go with this 15. The two-time MVP is now averaging a familiar 11.6 assists per game this month and has pushed his season average above nine per game.
This trip also featured a happy ending for Leandro Barbosa, who poured in 23 points in 27 minutes tonight, including 12 of 14 Phoenix points during one stretch in the second half. He’s now hit for 20 the past two days after combining for 12 points total in the previous three games.
Too bad the rest of the bench is still MIA, particularly Matt Barnes, who didn’t score in 24 minutes, missing all five of his shots (four threes). Barnes’ trip has been a disaster, as he’s scored as many points in the last five games (16) as he did during the trip opener in Toronto, shooting 6-for-27 (22.2 percent) and 2-for-13 on threes (15.4 percent) over the past five.
J-Rich (nine points, 3-for-13) and Grant Hill (two points, 1-for-6, 20 minutes) joined Barnes in the bad offensive games category, and LB stole Hill’s crunch time minutes again. Suns fans can only hope there isn’t something we don’t know about that’s limiting the fastest 36-year-old in the NBA.
None of that mattered because of some stiff fourth-quarter defense and the contributions of Shaq, Amare, Nash and LB, as the Suns’ flight heads to Phoenix a bearable 3-3 on this road trip instead of a miserable 2-4.