Hawks 102, Suns 101 — ‘Tough as it gets’


Every season there are a certain number of games that a team will win that it has no business taking and lose that it has no business dropping. It’s sports, and when one of those games occurs you just have to tip your hat to the opposition and move on to the next game.

For whatever reason those gut-punch games always seem to happen when you’re already mired in a slump, already wondering what could go wrong next.

It’s no huge secret that the Suns have blown every lead in the book in 2010, but today’s focus won’t be on the 12-point lead the Suns predictably gave up in the first half. There was about as good a chance that the sun would rise today as there was that the Hawks would come back from that deficit.

But after Steve Nash drew a foul and hit two clutch free throws, the Suns led 100-96 with 10 seconds left. That’s akin to there being two outs and nobody on base in a two-run game with Mariano Rivera on the mound. Game over, right?

Not with these Suns, of course, they always have to make things interesting. And one thing you can certifiably say about those final 10 seconds is that they were undeniably interesting. Way too interesting for the tastes of any Suns fan.

After Mike Bibby missed a pretty good look at three, Josh Smith rebounded the miss and got fouled, stopping the clock at six seconds. Smith hit the first and missed the second, but the carom slipped between the hands of Nash and Grant Hill and bounded right into the waiting hands of Jamal Crawford (you’ll hear from him later) under the hoop for an easy layup to make this a 100-99 game.

How many times in a game do you see two teammates in position to get a board only for it to bounce off their fingertips? Not more than once or twice a game, and rarely in a situation like that. At the time I thought the Hawks should have pulled it out and attempted a game-tying three with there being such little time left, but I suppose I forgot they were playing the Suns.

On the ensuing inbounds, the Hawks bottled up Nash and forced a pass to Amare Stoudemire, who missed the Suns’ fifth crucial free throw of the quarter in 15 attempts (and his third in eight tries) to give the Hawks hope down only two with 3.0 seconds left.

So three seconds left, we can forget about all that strange stuff if the Suns just come up with one measly stop.

The Hawks threw it out to Crawford near middle court, he took a couple dribbles and launched a 28-foot three right in the grill of the Suns’ best perimeter defender, Jared Dudley, and you know the rest.

Nothing but the bottom. Hawks 102, Suns 101.

“This is as about as tough as it gets,” Suns head coach Alvin Gentry told Suns.com. “I thought we did a good job defensively, but for some reason a team that shot 41 percent found a way to beat us. We just couldn’t come up with that one play at the end to put the game away. We played hard and had an opportunity to win, but you have to give the Hawks credit for earning the win.”

Added Channing Frye, “It’s a tough loss when you try to do everything right and the ball just doesn’t go your way. … We couldn’t have played him better on that last shot. My hats off to him. It was just a tough loss.”

First off, the Suns blew a mini-lead and then built it back up to even be in a position to win with 10 seconds left. Nash hit a pair of tough jumpers to help put the Suns up seven with four minutes left before a Smith slam tied it two minutes later.

Goran Dragic got a breakaway hoop off a steal with just over a minute left, and after a Joe Johnson miss, Amare put Phoenix up four with a nifty double-clutch hoop inside with 40 seconds left.

I thought the Suns were a basket or a stop away from a ‘W’ at this point, and they got those points after two freebies from Al Horford when Horford thwarted a Nash jumper only to foul Nash on the drive and see Two Time hit a pair of foul shots to give the Suns an “insurmountable” four-point lead with 10 seconds left.

Before those final seconds the Suns had played a superb defensive quarter, holding the Hawks to 18 points in the first 11:54 of the quarter before yielding a third of that in the final six seconds. The Suns forced the Hawks to shoot jump shots by going with some zone, and the strategy worked as Atlanta only nailed three of their 13 jumpers (23.1 percent), according to ESPN Stats and Information, before Crawford’s dagger.

You can thank a very unconventional lineup for that, as after watching Channing Frye get plowed down low for a good chunk of the game, Gentry trotted out the sophomore duo of Robin Lopez and Dragic for the entire quarter aside from a few seconds along with Amare Stoudemire. Nash and Grant Hill joined them for the final seven minutes.

Those two players had never played crunch time minutes before, but they acquitted themselves quite well to the pressure situation. They’re not the reason the Suns lost, but their defense is certainly a reason the Suns even had a lead to blow at the buzzer.

Now let’s further examine those final 10 seconds. You can say the Suns lost because Crawford hit an amazing shot — and he did — but it never should have come to that. Phoenix just did not do the little things that a winning team does, be it grabbing the offensive board Smith corralled in the first place, snatching up his missed free throw or hitting clutch free throws at the end (or even the beginning) of the fourth.

The Suns didn’t do any of those little things, so then a big thing was the knockout blow. A winning team that’s rolling makes one of those plays and doesn’t get in a situation where one shot can beat them.

As for the final defensive possession, this was no Danny Granger situation. The Hawks had designed a play to get an easy bucket, but the Suns’ D gobbled up Joe Johnson and forced Crawford to hit a tough shot with a hand in his face after he had previously knocked down just three of his nine jumpers. They didn’t lose because his prayer was answered; they lost because of what happened in the previous three (can you believe it?) seconds of game time.

And with that the Suns wasted a 28 and 14 game from Amare, 21 from Hill and 12 and 11 from Nash. They also wasted Lopez’s career day, as he went for 11 points, six boards and (no misprint) six blocks to go with a team-high plus 10 in a season-high 31 minutes, which is more time than he logged in Phoenix’s first six January games combined during which he has three DNP-CDs to his name. Dragic’s 10 and six in 23 minutes weren’t too shabby either.

On the flip side, Frye and Jason Richardson both scored just five points on 2-for-8 shooting, and Frye contributed just a single board and weak ‘D.’ There’s a reason Lopez played the fourth.

Having given up a 12-point lead in this one, the Suns have now yielded leads of 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 19, 20 (twice) and 24 (twice) since just Dec. 11. I have the Suns giving up a 14-point lead Saturday in Charlotte on my “Suns Blown Leads” Bingo card, and pretty soon they will have all the double digits up to 20 covered.

The silver lining of this blown game is that by and large the Suns played pretty good defense and were in position to beat a team that wins two games for every loss and now boasts a 16-4 home record despite the fact that Phoenix nailed only two long balls and shot 15.4 percent from behind the arc.

Not that that makes Crawford’s shot any less painful.

“What can I say? The guy hit a big shot at a crucial time,” Hill told Suns.com. “There’s not much you can do in that situation, when you know you’re playing the best that you can. It’s a tough loss for us, because we know we played well tonight, and we know that we kept them on their toes for most of the game.

“Every loss hurts, but this one a little bit more because of how it happened. We just have to take this loss and get ourselves prepared for the next game. If we compete and play hard like this every night, more than likely we will win.

“We just came up on the short end of the stick tonight.”