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Suns 116, Nets 105 — Third quarter brilliance


The wins are coming so easily for the Phoenix Suns these days that the only surprise in their 116-105 win over the feisty New Jersey Nets was that the margin of victory wasn’t more.

The Nets outplayed a sometimes sluggish Suns team for three of the four quarters, but a dominant third quarter in which Phoenix outscored the hosts 38-23 helped the Suns roll to victory, their ninth in a row.

The difference between the Suns and the Nets — and really the difference between the Suns of the last two months and the Suns of the previous two months — is that they just expect to win basketball games. Things have been going so well that even when they go into the locker room at halftime with a little bit of a deficit, they wait for that run to come and it does.

Even after the Suns took what seemed to be a commanding 15-point lead in the final seconds of the third quarter, New Jersey stormed back with a 10-0 run to seemingly put the Nets in position to steal this one.

But then Goran Dragic did his best impression of Steve Nash in crunch time Tuesday in Chicago and took over by scoring or assisting on four straight Phoenix baskets with a defensive rebound thrown in to boot to push the lead back to nine. New Jersey never again seriously threatened.

Of course, the Suns had that big of a lead in the first place because the starters stormed out of the gates with a 13-0 run in just over the first two minutes of the second half. After New Jersey cut the lead to four, the Suns answered back with a 17-6 run of their own as part of the one quarter that won this game for them.

“That was great,” Nash told Suns.com. “It was great to get a good start and obviously it gave us a chance to get a lead back. I thought we sustained the effort in the second half for the most part.”

Sticking with the Nash theme, I’m really running out of things to write about the guy. On a day his back was far from perfect and he was feeling pretty sick-ish on the second night of a back-to-back against one of the worst teams ever record-wise, MVSteve goes out there and guts out a 24-7-14 game in just 30 minutes, leading the Suns in every category.

This was a game that I thought he should rest for his health’s sake, yet he goes out there and puts up one of his better stat lines of the season.

As mentioned earlier, Dragic played well, too, and if you add up the stat lines of Nash and Dragic (who combined played a complete 48 minutes), the Suns got 35 points, 20 assists and 10 rebounds on 14-for-24 shooting (58.3 percent) from their ones. You think the Nets (or any NBA team) would like to get that kind of production out of the point guard spot?

On the flip side, Amare Stoudemire went for just 15 points and four rebounds in 28 minutes due to some foul trouble. That makes tonight the first time STAT hasn’t gone for at least 18 points since Jan. 26 against Charlotte. No, it’s not a coincidence that that game finished off Phoenix’s stretch of seven losses in nine games, which directly preceded the Suns’ 23-5 run.

But that was OK because New Jersey went into this game with the mind-set of not letting Amare beat them, so instead the Suns’ outside shooting did. Phoenix hit 11-of-18 from deep (61.1 percent) a night after nailing 14-of-28 from distance in Chicago.

“We definitely tried to distract them from guarding me. Guys did a great job of knocking down outside shots,” Stoudemire said of a Suns team that nailed nine long balls in a row at one point, the most consecutive treys drilled in the NBA since March 2008. “They had to respect both the inside and outside game. They have to pick their poison.”

In all the Suns should not be ecstatic just about beating a team that a week ago seemed like it had a shot at the worst record in NBA history, even if that team did just knock off mighty San Antonio. But they should be proud of what they have accomplished in winning nine straight games for the first time since their 17-gamer during the 2006-07 season.

In our ValleyoftheSuns preseason predictions, I said March would include the team’s most crucial stretch because of the homestand that engulfed most of the month. I figured it would be a time for Phoenix to gain ground, but I never expected that the Suns would sprint through the month with a 12-2 record to vault them to the top of the West’s playoff picture.

In this month the Suns have started peaking at the right time. They are playing their best basketball of the season. They possess the confidence of a winning team, knowing that even when they hit an inevitable lull they will make their own run to overcome it, particularly when they’re playing bad teams.

It’s a good thing the Suns won because just about every team in the West (I’m looking at you Dallas, Utah, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Portland) won as well, so although the Suns didn’t gain any ground at least they didn’t lose any.

“Obviously it feels good to stay alive in the Western Conference and build up some good feelings for the playoffs,” Nash said.

Unlike inconsistent Suns teams of prior years that would beat the best teams in the league one night and fall to the dregs of the NBA the next, this Phoenix ballclub has consistently taken care of business all year, last losing to a bad team during the squad’s January doldrums.

And that’s exactly the reason why Phoenix is now threatening to earn a top-three seed in the West.