Phoenix Suns 113, Oklahoma City Thunder 110 — Not quite over the Hill


Who needs Jason Richardson or Vince Carter when you have Grant Hill?

The NBA’s third-oldest player made Phoenix Suns fans forget about the 19.3 points per game they’ll be missing with J-Rich in Orlando.

He momentarily erased the question of whether or not a 33-year-old Carter, who will play against the Heat on Thursday, can shoulder the load as the team’s No. 1 option for the rest of the season.

Hill’s 30-point, 11-rebound effort that willed a short-handed Suns team past the Oklahoma City Thunder, 113-110, on Sunday night made a statement to the Suns: “Why not me?”

The 6-foot-8, 225-pound Hill played like a go-to-guy in his best performance in purple and orange ever and his first 30 and 10 game since April 2000.

He knocked down a handful of mid-range jumpers and attacked the basket with ease, leading to 14 free-throw attempts (12 makes) and his first 30-point game since Feb. 27, 2005.

Hill, along with tenacious fourth-quarter defense from Josh Childress, made Kevin Durant work for all 28 of his points as he was forced into 8-for-19 shooting from the field.

Durant led the Thunder back from a 13-point deficit to trail 106-103 with 2:08 remaining. But Hill wouldn’t let the Thunder get any closer, as he had his shot blocked, regained possession and finished an 8-footer to put the Suns up 108-103 with 1:48 left in the game.

The NBA’s top scorer answered back with an 11-footer to cut the Suns’ lead to three. But after a missed runner from Steve Nash, Childress — who was benched the last two games — made the biggest play of the game as he picked Durant’s pocket with 1:06 left, giving the Suns possession and an eventual victory.

Childress finally proved to be the slasher and perimeter defender the Suns had hoped for when they signed him to a lucrative contract in the offseason, as he scored 10 points on 5-of-9 shooting while collecting three steals in 28 minutes.

This was a game the Suns could have easily lost badly. They just surrendered Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark, and won’t have Carter, Marcin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus until Thursday.

But thanks to Hill’s circa 1997 performance, Nash’s 20 and 10 on 7-of-9 from the field, Robin Lopez’s 19 points on 9-of-10 shooting, 32 solid minutes from Goran Dragic (11 points, five assists) and Childress’ best all-around performance of the season, the Suns persevered.

They came out of the gates hot, drilling their first six shots of the game. Lopez knocked in his first three shots, Hill got off to a hot start and Childress brought energy off the bench. The Thunder, on the other hand, struggled from the field. They shot just 6-of-22 in the first quarter but only trailed 25-23 thanks to 13 free-throw attempts.

The Suns kept their foot on the gas into the second quarter, as Lopez made his first five shots, Nash and Dragic thrived in the backcourt together and Hill continued to dominate offensively, while Durant (2-for-11 in the first half) and the Thunder struggled with Phoenix’s zone defense.

The Suns’ starters shot 64 percent from the field in the first half, while the Thunder as a team shot an abysmal 27.9 percent and trailed 54-45 at the half. But the third quarter was an entirely different story for the Suns.

They did make their first six shots just like they did to start the game, but then the turnovers set in. The Suns held a 73-62 lead with 5:54 remaining in the third, but OKC began to hit stride as the Suns faltered, turning the ball over seven times in the quarter.

The Thunder ended the quarter on a 23-9 run, as the Suns didn’t make a shot in the final 3:23, while committing four turnovers during that stretch. Because of Phoenix’s sloppy play and Oklahoma City’s newfound rhythm, the Thunder took an 85-82 lead into the fourth quarter.

But the Suns grabbed hold of the lead early in the fourth, fighting off Durant and the Thunder thanks to 10 fourth-quarter points from Hill, and crucial rebounding (the Suns won the battle of the boards 37-32) and defense down the stretch.

The Suns played far from a perfect game, committing 20 turnovers that led to 21 Thunder points, while only knocking down four three-pointers. They also sent Oklahoma City to the line 48 times, which isn’t ideal against a team on pace to set the NBA’s single-season free-throw percentage record.

But behind Hill’s monster double-double the short-handed Suns fought through the adversity and beat one of the NBA’s more talented teams in a fairly hostile environment.

Hill proved he can shoulder the scoring load from time to time as he went for 20-plus for the eighth time this season (he did it five times last season), Childress showed he isn’t worthless, Lopez was extremely efficient in his second game back and Nash showed no lingering effects from the stinger he suffered against the Mavericks.

The Suns take on the first-place Spurs Monday night, and yet again undergo a makeover when Carter, Gortat and Pietrus suit up on Thursday against the Heat. What the future holds remains to be seen, but Hill and the Suns took care of business against the Thunder.

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Lopez looked better than he had all season, with terrific activity and a great shooting stroke. He knocked down three 17-foot jumpers and took Thunder center Serge Ibaka, who averaged 10.5 points and 6.6 rebounds heading into the contest, completely out of the game as he played only 11 minutes, scoring zero points and grabbing no rebounds. Lopez also collected the game’s highest +/- with a plus-23. … Despite five turnovers, Nash was extremely efficient and knocked down two three-pointers for the first time since Nov. 14. … Jared Dudley played solid defense, but didn’t do much as a starter, going 0-for-2 and scoring two points in 29 minutes. … Other than Hill and Lopez, Childress was the story of the game. He looked confident and had a couple of incredible finishes that the Suns hoped they would see a long time ago. Gentry was forced to play Childress with a short bench, but it will be interesting to see how his playing time compares to that of Pietrus.