Phoenix Suns 104, New Orleans Hornets 102 — Gortat keeps dominating


PHOENIX — After scoring a career-high 19 points Friday against Boston, Marcin Gortat said not to expect him to continue setting career highs, that he had just about reached his limit.

Turns out Gortat was wrong as he set a career high in the second half alone with 21 and scored 25 for the game as the Suns held on for a 104-102 win over the New Orleans Hornets.

“That’s what I said, but honestly I didn’t think I was going to come into the game and make another career high,” Gortat said. “Actually I was really tired and I think the last game took a lot of energy from my body and I was kind of tired this morning, I tried to push myself, I had a lack of focus the first couple minutes I came into the game and I was mad at myself that I screwed up, and I said, ‘All right, I’m just going to stay in the game,’ and I’m proud of myself that I handled that situation very well.”

He handled it very well indeed and took advantage of a New Orleans front line missing Emeka Okafor in the second half due to a left hip injury (after seven first-half offensive rebounds), as he went for 21 and eight in the second half alone without Okafor.

Gortat has now tied or set a career high five times this month, including the last three, as he became the first Suns reserve (if you can even call him a reserve) to go for 25 and 11 off the bench since 2001.

“I think he’s getting better every day,” head coach Alvin Gentry said. “He and Steve are developing a chemistry that I think is working for us. He has done a good job on the boards. He has been a really physical rebounder for us, which we needed and he’s come up with some big plays for us at the end. I think he continues to get better and better. I thought in those 24 minutes he was great.”

Gortat has showcased a sweet little jumper that helped him shoot 9-for-10 in this game (and 23-for-33 during the homestand) to go with hitting all seven foul shots, and he’s also becoming a devastating finisher in the pick-and-roll game as he’s doing a much better job of fielding Nash’s passes.

In fact the chemistry between them is becoming so good that Gortat joked with Nash that he’s going to make him an MVP candidate once again and also the league leader in assists by finishing so many of his passes. It may not be a joke as Nash’s 15 assists in this one gave him an average of 12.1 per game in January, his best assist month since December 2007.

“Rajon Rondo is a great point guard, but he isn’t better than Steve,” Gortat said of the league’s current assist leader. “As many passes as he gave me today I think I had so many passes the entire season a couple years ago. It’s just a great feeling to play with him. I think we’re doing a tremendous job right now together.”

But all the good work that Gortat and the Suns did after leading by nine early, then falling behind by 10 in the second before managing a halftime tie and finally building a comfortable working margin throughout the fourth almost unraveled during a hideous final 29.1 seconds of basketball that started with the Suns leading by eight.

First Chris Paul hit a wide-open three after the Suns failed to rebound a Marcus Thornton miss. Then Trevor Ariza stole the ball as Grant Hill attempted to quickly inbound to Nash, and then Paul drew a foul on Channing Frye while shooting a three-pointer. Paul appeared to do a little acting job to get the call but Frye was close enough to make the whistle a possibility although he appeared to play it straight up.

After knocking down all three foul shots to make it a two-point game, Hill threw the ball to the opposite sideline, and Nash made an acrobatic save to Vince Carter, who stepped out of bounds for the turnover with 10.1 seconds left.

Next a driving David West found Thornton open for a layup underneath the hoop. Hill came over to get a piece of it and appeared to get it on the way down, as the Hornets angrily complained about after the game, but the refs called it a clean block rather than a goal tend.

But the fun wasn’t over as Paul chased down the rebound and attempted an off-balance, potential game-winning three with Dudley challenging in front of him and Nash behind him but missed badly, seemingly attempting to draw another foul.

“I thought we played great, for 47 minutes and 31 seconds,” Gentry said. “It’s a great win for us. That’s a really good basketball team. Obviously I wish we could have closed the game out in the end. We played great, but they made a couple of shots and we’ fouled them’ on a three-point shot. That got the game close. I don’t want to take anything away from them. It was a great win for us against a really good basketball team that’s been playing great.”

A game after limiting Boston to 34.2 percent shooting, the Suns held the Hornets to 42.1 percent marksmanship, including just 10 points in the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter. The Suns also scored 104 against the NBA’s best scoring defense (91.4 ppg) and won their fourth straight game against a winning team (now if they could only beat the slightly below .500 East teams).

“I see chemistry building, I see people knowing their spots, I see the roles being defined. I think our rotation is solid,” Jared Dudley said, “I think people know what to expect from each other. I think Gortat is playing at a higher level. Now we’re at this point where we can’t use being together very long as an excuse.”

Added Hill, “It’s starting to come together.”

That’s what we thought when the Suns won five in a row only to drop their next three, but wins over the Celtics, who today spanked the Lakers in Staples and own the East’s best record, and the Hornets, who had won 10 in a row before losing in Sacramento on Saturday, certainly provide reasons for optimism.

Now two games under .500, the Suns’ goal is to reach that elusive .500 mark by the All-Star break after playing below it since the Orlando reinforcements arrived. With more performances like this (minus the very end), that could happen sooner rather than later.

And 1

The Suns have not lost a Sunday home game since Feb. 22, 2009, going 11-0 in that time. … The Suns have held five of their last seven opponents to 43.4 percent shooting or worse. … Gortat has scored in double figures in three straight games for the second time in the last 11 days, something he had never done previously.