PHOENIX — After the Suns blew a 23-point advantage in Wednesday’s loss to the Bulls, they worried about becoming a team that earns a reputation for coughing up such leads.
They may have taken the victory Friday against the Clippers, 116-108, but the Suns did nothing to remove the label of a team for which no lead is safe.
The Suns once again ran out to their biggest first quarter of the season, opening up a commanding 42-21 lead after one during a fantastic quarter in which the team played solid defense, ran and spaced the floor, hit five threes and looked generally unstoppable.
Phoenix led by as many as 25 in the first, but wouldn’t you know it the lead dropped to 14 in the second quarter and eventually four midway through the third before the Suns squeaked out the victory.
“We just got to find a way to maintain it a little bit,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “We’ve got to play a little more consistent than what we’ve been doing. I thought we were great [in the first quarter]. We got out and ran, did a good job in the first quarter, and we didn’t play that badly in the second quarter, we just gave up 30 points. We just didn’t maintain it.
“We’ve just got to do a better job of closing out games, but the positive is we’re good enough to get out to the leads that we are the last two nights. We just have to learn to build from that.”
Following a 20-8 spurt to begin the second half for the Clippers, the Suns responded with a 15-3 run to get the lead back up to 16, but they let it drop as low as six in the final minute before Channing Frye hit a huge mid-range jumper to ice it.
After the Suns played their near flawless first quarter, I felt they needed to make sure that the fourth quarter would be Garret Siler time. They needed to make this one a laugher for their one psyche and to show teams they aren’t the lead-blowing artists the Bulls made them out to be.
But the Suns, who allowed the Clippers to shoot better than 50 percent in the matchup of the league’s two least efficient defenses, took counterpunch after counterpunch every time they made a run to the extent the Clippers had a chance in the final minute of a game they had no business being in.
“You could just tell in guys’ eyes that we didn’t want to lose another game like that where we’re beating a team down and have them come from behind and win, so we got some stops and we pulled the game out,” Jason Richardson said. “We didn’t let up the lead this time, and guys kept on being aggressive, but we’ve still got to figure out what’s wrong with the first five minutes of the third quarter where we’re letting teams cut the lead in half.”
Perhaps it’s part human nature, especially for a bad defensive team that doesn’t rebound, but the Suns just have not been able to sustain excellent play for any length of time.
Before the game I asked Gentry about the first quarter in the Bulls game, and he opined that when the Suns are running, spreading the floor and shooting open shots they are “pretty doggone good.” He pointed out that the Suns did exactly that to beat the Lakers, and we saw that Suns team on the floor in the first quarter the past two games.
It’s startling to consider the difference between the Suns team that combined for 78 points on better than 60 percent shooting while hitting eight threes the last two first quarters and the Suns team from the other six quarters (and two overtimes) the last two nights. Really that starts on the defensive end, as the Suns held their opponents to 33 percent shooting in the last two first quarters while winning the rebounding battle, which let them get out and run.
Steve Nash dished out nine assists in these first quarters as the Suns ran the ball down their opponents’ throat and looked unstoppable. But they have just could not maintain that level of play in either game.
“We’ve just played well,” Nash said. “We came out sharp, made plays and got stops. Our defense was key. On the other hand we’ve just done a poor job in second quarters and it’s kind of changed the whole momentum of the game.
“We had opportunities to really step on them in the second quarter and we just didn’t do it. I think we learned a lesson by not kind of relinquishing so much of the lead and that energy.”
Richardson keyed the hot start with a 17-point first quarter in which he knocked down 7-of-9 shots, including a trio of triples, and scored Phoenix’s first nine points.
“Really aggressive coming out from the start,” Richardson said. “Things were going, Coach was calling my number, guys were finding me, so felt good in the first quarter.”
Hakim Warrick also continued his strong play of late with a Suns career high 25 points off the bench on a night he hit 13-of-14 free throws. That’s the most foul shots taken by a Suns reserve since Danny Manning in 1998 and the most of any Sun not named Amare since the 2008-09 season finale when Grant Hill was chucking at will for a salary bonus.
That marks the second straight night Warrick has gone for a season high, as he scored more points than he did all of last season and recorded consecutive 20-point games for the first time since March 2008.
On the other side, Eric Gordon (32 and six assists) and Blake Griffin (20 and 14 rebounds but only one offensive board) kept the Clips in the game surprisingly along with Brian Cook (16 and 10) and Ryan Gomes (20). Yes, you know you have issues when Brian Cook goes for 16 and 10.
Playing against a Clippers squad that’s winless on the road and beat Sacramento in the late national TV game last night, the Suns got a second chance to right the wrongs of Wednesday night and knock out a reeling opponent after their sterling first quarter.
Instead Gordon and Griffin led a comeback that fell short but once again made a statement that the Suns lack a killer instinct.
“We knew they were going to fight back,” Warrick said. “It’s the NBA, it’s a game of runs, but we’ve got to do a better job of just sustaining our leads and continue to be the team that got us the lead.”
The Suns have won nine straight against the Clippers, their longest active winning streak against a West opponent and their second longest overall behind a 12-game winning streak over Toronto. … The Suns have won 27 straight divisional home games against teams not called the Lakers. They last lost to a non-Lakers divisional rival April 17, 2007, when the Clippers beat them. … The Suns have won seven straight home games against Los Angeles. … Phoenix has won five straight games against West opponents. … Gentry improved to 7-0 against his former team since taking over for Terry Porter. The Suns have won those games by an average of 20.4 points per game. … Warrick has scored at least 20 three times in 16 games after only doing so seven times all of season. He also has six games of at least 18, which he only accomplished eight times last year. … Nash has reached double figures in assists in six of his last nine games.