Suns 112, Bobcats 102 – Old friends denied


PHOENIX – When Steve Nash hobbled off the court with the help of Leandro Barbosa after landing awkwardly on a three-point attempt, you could hear the hush in the crowd at US Airways Center.

After everything else that has befallen the Suns this season, losing Nash would be only the latest calamity.

“I can’t say what was going through my mind,” said Suns forward Matt Barnes, not wanting to use language unbefitting of a family blog.

Nash left the game with 4:03 remaining in the third with his team leading 86-71 following his three-point hit and headed to the locker room minutes later.

He re-entered the game at the 8:41 mark of the fourth with 10 points trimmed off the Suns’ lead and promptly nailed another three-pointer for the first points either team scored after his return, a wide-open shot he credited to “luck” due to the lack of lift he could get on his jumper.

Feeling he had no strength in the ankle and that he could only hurt Phoenix at both ends, he took himself out for good at the 6:54 mark and watched his teammates close out the 112-102 win from the bench.

Will Nash return Thursday in Los Angeles?

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s a little swollen, sore, but I think it’s something I have to reassess in the morning. If I had to guess I’d say it’s not going to be a long-term thing. We’ll be careful in the next 48 hours to make a decision for Thursday.”

That’s not exactly what you want to hear heading into a stretch in which the Suns will play the Lakers twice in four days and then six more winning teams, but after watching Nash limp off the floor that’s about the best anybody could expect.

Jason Richardson also left the Phoenix locker room with an ice bag around his ankle Tuesday night after he fell wrong on former teammate Gerald Wallace on a three-point attempt with about five minutes remaining. Wallace picked up his sixth foul on the play and J-Rich hit all three foul shots to put the Suns up 10.

“I kind of fell on his foot and kind of rolled it a little bit,” said Richardson, who finished a game-high plus 19. “I tried to tough it out and finish the game off.”

Richardson did just that and later hit a clutch shot with the shot clock running down to put the Suns up 12 with a minute and a half left to ice it. With 20 points, J-Rich joined Nash (22) and Shaq (20) at that plateau, while LB went for 17 and Barnes added 14 off the bench.

J-Rich certainly was familiar with the player he matched up against defensively at the small forward spot, as he must have sparred with Wallace once or twice when they were teammates in Charlotte.

Nash guarding best friend Raja Bell was an odd sight, and so was Grant Hill trying to check Boris Diaw.

Before the game, the Phoenix faithful recognized Bell and Diaw with warm applause during the starting lineup introductions. The pregame hugs between opponents were more than your average customary embrace from players who don’t really like each other, and both former Suns stopped by the Phoenix bench to say hello just before the tip.

“It was really nice,” Bell said. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I have nothing but great memories from being here. I was thankful that the fans didn’t see me as a villain in the whole thing. It’s just business and it’s just the way it goes. I wish these guys the best. I’ll always cheer for them as long as they aren’t playing against me.”

Added Diaw, “I came back during All-Stars in Phoenix and just from fans I saw on the streets and stuff like that, it was like that, and they said, ‘We miss you.’ I was hoping.”

Then the former Suns went out and showed their ex-teammates what they’re missing, as if we didn’t already know.

In my preview I predicted Diaw would go for a 25-8-7 line. I just about nailed it, as Diaw stuffed the stat sheet with a season-high 27 points on 10-for-12 shooting to go with 10 boards and six assists, while Bell poured in 23.

Bell hit a couple fadeaways on Nash and otherwise spotted up for jumpers on his 3-for-5 three-point shooting night, and Diaw’s versatile inside-outside game with nifty moves in the post was on full display against the smaller Suns.

“It’s always tough in some ways,” Nash said about playing against his friends. “I know those guys were fired up to come back. They loved their time here, and they both had a great game. Fortunately for us, the position we’re in, we needed a win and we got it.”

They did so by coming out with much better energy than they did during that lifeless 98-76 defeat in Charlotte on Jan. 23, a contest in which they trailed by as many as 34 ironically enough in the same week they were creamed in Boston.

This revenge game went much better than Sunday’s showdown against the defending champs, as the Suns surpassed their fast-break total from the last game (six) in the opening minute of the second quarter and sprinted out to 26 fast-break points, a season high for a Charlotte opponent.

The Suns also reached the season-low 76 points from last game with 6:27 left in the third and scored a regulation season high for a Bobcats opponent.

That should come as no surprise as the Suns are now averaging 128.4 ppg under head coach Alvin Gentry and have shot better than 50 percent in all five games (56.7 percent average), a season high for consecutive contests at that mark.

“We continue to score,” Gentry said. “We shot well from the three-point line (47.4 percent). I was happy with the way we played.

“A little bit disturbing with the turnovers. We had kept them down the last three games, but we gave up 19 turnovers with 22 points is a little high. We need to cut that in half for us to be effective, so that was really a concern.”

Phoenix also received a boost from its bench to start the second quarter when a lineup consisting of reserves Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, Lou Amundson and Barnes playing with the starter J-Rich outscored Charlotte 19-10 for the first six minutes of the quarter.

They played with characteristic abundant energy and made a run with Nash, Shaq, LB and Grant Hill resting, a time when the Suns usually are outscored something like 19-10.

“The most impressive thing to me was the fact that we had that team in there, and I thought that team right there did a real good job for us,” Gentry said. “They actually got a little separation for us, and we kept wanting to sub back in, but they played so well we were able to rest our starters for a long time and did a good job of getting separation for us.”

The bench played so well on this night that the Suns almost didn’t miss Boris and Raja.

Well, almost.