Suns 93, Blazers 87 — A new way to win


PHOENIX — Anybody who has been a Phoenix Suns fan for more than five minutes knows all the reasons the Suns “can’t” win in the playoffs.

They don’t play defense.

Their half-court offense sputters when the tempo slows.

They can’t grind out victories.

Nobody will ever confuse these Suns with the San Antonio Spurs, but for one night they did everything a playoff team is supposed to do in beating the Portland Trail Blazers 93-87 in a game that was as un-Suns-like as they get.

“Normally when we shoot 30 some odd percent in years prior we had a hard time winning, but I think this year we’re doing a great job of regardless of whether we’re scoring 152 or having a slow-scoring night we’re able to get the win,” said Suns forward Amare Stoudemire.

Mike D’Antoni might not recognize the team that wore orange “Los Suns” jerseys on Sunday when he scouts for Friday’s game between Phoenix and New York.

The Suns, who shot 38.8 percent from the field, won a game in which they were held under 40 percent for the first time since Feb. 2, 2008, against the Sonics. Yes, this was such a long time ago that Seattle still had a team.

Phoenix hardly resembled the best shooting team in the NBA for three quarters, nailing just 33.8 percent of its shots and averaging 21.3 points per quarter. Then in the fourth the Suns executed in the halfcourt well enough to shoot 60.0 percent and score 29 points to grind out the win against a tough Portland ballclub.

“I think it shows we’re prepared mentally and physically to play a different style of game,” said Suns guard Steve Nash. “I think it shows we’re improving mentally and I think our game also is becoming a little more versatile. We can win with our defense, we can score in the halfcourt down the stretch when it counts. We’re getting better.”

This was exactly the kind of game the Suns normally would lose in the playoffs. The Suns just didn’t have their ‘A’ offensive game with Portland mucking up the contest and controlling the pace after Phoenix jumped out to a quick 14-7 advantage.

But even though the Suns would prefer to play quicker than they did in this one, they hung around long enough to go on a 12-2 spurt in the middle of the fourth to pull ahead by eight with 4:26 left and never look back.

Jared Dudley did the bulk of the damage during the spurt, scoring eight of his 10 points during the run, including a pair of threes. At the other end he did his part in bodying up on Brandon Roy.

“I let the shots come to me,” Dudley said. “I’m not going to force it. I felt they were all good looks, and once I hit one my confidence went up.”

Added Gentry of Dudley, “He’s done that for us throughout the year. He’s just been real solid.”

At the other end, the Suns threw some zone on Portland in the fourth, a tool the Suns are using to their advantage more and more often of late to positive results.

Gentry chose to go zone to take away some of the isolations Portland likes to run for Roy, a usual Suns killer who was harassed into an 8-for-25 night. Combined with Andre Miller’s 7-for-20 (and 0-for-6 fourth quarter), the Blazers’ backcourt went 15-for-45.

This strategy worked to perfection, as Portland shot just 5-for-21 (23.8 percent) in the quarter and 1-for-9 from deep as the Suns improved to 10-18 this year when trailing after four in comparison to 4-30 last season.

In total, the Suns actually out shot the Blazers (36.4 percent) in a game with a playoff atmosphere that they won wholly at the defensive end. Since when do the Suns win games in the 90s?

“We showed that we’re a better defensive team than a lot of people think, and we’re going to continue to improve defensively,” said Stoudemire, whose streak of 22 straight games with at least 19 points ended with his 18-point performance. “It’s something that we’ve been focusing on since training camp.”

If the Suns can mix some defense and situational halfcourt offense with what is already the league’s most efficient offense, they really can become a darkhorse team in the wide-open Western Conference that has become even more wide open with news of another Andrew Bynum injury.

After winning day after day without seemingly gaining any ground, the Suns (now in sole possession of fifth place) moved up on the three teams currently in the Nos. 6-8 places in the West, which happens about as often as the Suns win while shooting 38 percent these days. After all, the top 10 teams in the West are all either 8-2 or 7-3 in their last 10.

By beating Portland, the Suns now lead the Blazers by three in the loss column, which should keep Phoenix out of the dreaded No. 8 spot barring a collapse. Looking at the other end of the spectrum, the Suns are just a game behind No. 4 Utah and three back of No. 2 Denver. It will be interesting to see how much ground they will gain while playing six straight games against losing teams.

But that’s not what Gentry is worried about right now. When asked rhetorically if he’s a Hawks fan tonight with the San Antonio-Atlanta game on in his office, he said he didn’t care, repeating the “we control our own destiny” mantra that he’s voiced many times of late.

That really is true, and if the Suns continue to play defense like this, the only scoreboard watching to be done will be of Denver, Dallas and Utah.

“It was a great win for us, the kind of win that earlier in the year I’m not sure if we could have won like this,” Gentry said. “I think our defense has gotten a lot better and I think guys are really committed to it. We beat a really good team.”

And 1

  • After struggling with back and abdominal issues for weeks, Nash said he’s feeling “a lot better” on the court these days. “I’m still not quite where I was, but I feel like I’m almost there,” Nash said. “It’s making it a lot more fun to be out there.”
  • Sunday was a nice day for Jason Richardson. Not only did the Suns beat the Blazers to move up in the standings, but his Spartans pulled out a buzzer-beating win in a thrilling game against Maryland. “It’s been great,” J-Rich said. “Any time the Spartans get a win it’s great, and we got a win tonight. We just grinded it out tonight.” Next up for Michigan State? Everybody’s favorite bracket buster, Ali Farokhmanesh and Northern Iowa.
  • J-Rich now faces another homecoming game Monday in Golden State, which he figures just might have a higher combined score than Sunday’s game. “Tomorrow night might be 300 points on the board,” he said.
  • Amare (14), Grant Hill (11) and Channing Frye (10 off the bench) all recorded double-figure boards as the Suns barely won the rebounding battle, 48-45. Remember when Portland out-rebounded the Suns by like a million in preseason?
  • The Suns have now beaten every Western Conference playoff team this season. … Phoenix ended its season-long seven-game homestand 5-2, which I would call a good homestand considering the opponents. … Phoenix’s magic number to clinch a playoff spot is six. … The Suns are a season-high 18 games over .500. … Phoenix is 25-5 in its last 30 home games against the West. … The Suns ended the Blazers’ five-game winning streak overall and their four-game win streak against Phoenix. The Suns have now won four in a row, the second-best streak in the West behind only the Lakers.