Suns 111, Rockets 105 — Clutch in Clutch City


Wins are coming so easy to the Phoenix Suns these days, it’s almost as if they feel the need to spot the opposition a lead.

That’s what happened Tuesday night when the Suns trailed the Rockets 49-34 midway through the second quarter after a Chase Budinger slam. Up to that point it had been all Houston, with the Rockets starting out on fire from three and getting to every loose ball on the rare occasion that they missed.

We should have known that was nothing for the Phoenix Suns to overcome, as was the case in the Suns’ 111-105 victory over the Rockets.

Phoenix immediately went to work with a 13-0 Amare Stoudemire-charged run and prevailed when the defense went into lockdown mode once again down the stretch, holding the Rockets to 9-for-28 shooting (32.1 percent) in the fourth quarter.

That’s been the magical combination, along with some clutch play at the offensive end as usual, for the Suns to become the Comeback Kids of the early going, as I wrote in Sunday’s Daily Dime.

After another late-game comeback, the Suns are now 5-2 when trailing after three. Last year they were 4-30 in such contests. The Suns have also trailed by double digits in five of their 10 wins after tonight’s comeback from 15 down. Last year they won only seven such games.

I really feel like the reason for that has to do with the intangibles. If you look at this team on paper, they switched Channing Frye for Shaquille O’Neal and went from above average to 10-2.

I don’t mean this to be a “pile on Shaq” session, but it’s amazing watching this team and just knowing there’s going to be a comeback. You could tell the players all knew, could sense it and just waited for that time to strike as they’ve done time and time again.

It’s a clutch quality possessed by some baseball teams, to switch sports on you real quick. For example, the 2007 D-backs were the National League’s best team despite being outscored because they were incredible in the clutch and had that feeling that the game wasn’t over so long as there were outs left to play with. The 2009 D-backs, on the other hand, always felt like they could blow it so long as there were outs left.

The Suns have come back from big deficits so many times already (and yes, we’re still a week shy of Thanksgiving) that it’s not just hope but a feeling of knowing that comeback is on the way.

Phoenix’s prowess of digging out of major deficits with ease goes back to something VP of basketball ops David Griffin said at the beginning of the season.

“I think you’ll see us at points really struggle, and that’s just how it’s going to be,” Griffin said, referring to points in particular games. “That’s how the ’04 team was. We’d go on an 18-point run, and we’d give up an 18-point run. We’ll probably play just like that.”

So far that’s been exactly how this team has played. No lead is safe, but neither is any opponent’s lead, and once a game gets close at the end the defense has tightened and Nash has ensured the offense executes.

After Sunday’s nail biter against the Raptors, I asked a few of the Suns what has made them so resilient all year in the face of major deficits.

“First of all we score,” Amare said. “We score easily, and I think this year defensively we’re stepping up. We’re taking it amongst ourselves to rebound and definitely get those stops down the stretch, so we’ve got to keep it going.”

Added J-Rich, echoing Amare, “Because we know we can score. Our biggest thing is getting stops. We know we always can make baskets, we’ve got a lot of guys who can do that, so we’re not really worried about that end. We’ve got to pick it up on the defensive end.”

Beyond defense, the Suns were ferocious on the boards in the second half after a lackluster opening on the glass. The team’s balance on the scoreboard (five guys in double figures, 10 with at least five) carried over onto the boards, where five Suns pulled down at least five rebounds. Nobody collected more than Grant Hill’s seven caroms.

A day after his 27th birthday, Amare Stoudemire was about as close to beast mode as we’ve seen him all year. He scored a team-high 23 points with ease, and this against defensive stalwart Chuck Hayes. We even saw a bit of power from STAT, and once he really gets rolling this team will be scary.

Steve Nash also had the most productive 2-for-10 you’ll ever see, showing why he’s leading ESPN’s MVP Watch. Even on an off night he still dished out 16 assists and managed to score 12 points, all in the second half.

Nash’s nifty assist in traffic to Jason Richardson (20 points) put the Suns on top for good with three minutes left, and a dish next time down to Channing Frye for three all but sealed it.

After Frye fouled out on the other end, the game was iced by an unselfish pass from Amare to Jarron Collins for a most unexpected crunch time hoop. Collins, playing only because Frye and Amare got into foul trouble, delivered a performance clutch enough for him to be the Suns postgame show’s player of the game.

Collins entered with three minutes left in the third and Gentry kept him in most of the fourth because he played so well, finishing with six points, six boards and two blocks in 13 minutes, while contributing some typical tough defense. It’s the kind of unexpected contribution that winning teams get, and it’s a reason why Collins isn’t a bad insurance policy, stepping right in after sitting out the past game and a half.

All of that means the Suns have started a season 10-2 for the third time in six years, and like that 2004-05 squad they have the look of a team with staying power.

And 1

Former UA stud Chase Budinger scored eight points in 14 minutes. He looks like a second-round pick who will stick, but he will be on SportsCenter tonight after Leandro Barbosa came from behind to obliterate a Budinger layup. …

During Budinger’s freshman year, his Wildcats ran into an unheralded Purdue team that knocked them out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round. Those Boilermakers were led by a star named Carl Landry, an under-the-radar guy who has become another second-round steal for the Rockets.

The Suns had no answer for Landry, who went for a game-high 27 points and nine boards in 30 minutes, but he was also a game-worst minus 17. …

For pure comedy and the most real postgame analysis, there’s only one place to turn: JMZ. My favorite part is Nash’s, “No comment.”