Ever since Amare Stoudemire left town, the Suns have lacked a go-to scorer, the kind of player teams rely on to get a bucket in crunch time when they need it most.
Well, apparently Steve Nash has added that responsibility to his already lengthy job description after drilling two go-ahead baskets in the final 14 seconds to lead Phoenix to a critical 107-105 victory over the Utah Jazz that vaulted the Suns past Utah into ninth place in the West, just a game behind Denver and Houston for the final two playoff spots in the West.
“You get the ball in his hands and you know he is going to get something good for his team,” Jazz head coach Tyrone Corbin told reporters. “He just gives you that confidence. He is who he is. He is a great player and he made great plays for them down the stretch. He made two big buckets to get them a win.”
With the game knotted up at 103 with 28 seconds remaining, Nash decided to call his own number instead of setting up his teammates as he often does a game after drilling two clutch jumpers in Sacramento to put the Suns up nine and essentially put the game away with 4:39 remaining.
Although he is not known for taking and making a lot of crunch time shots as he rarely goes into hero ball mode like so many other superstars, Nash got the lead-footed Al Jefferson to switch onto him on a pick and roll, continued to drive left and then executed a hard jump stop left to create space for a beautiful 17-foot jumper that did not hit the rim.
After Paul Millsap drove past Frye and found an open Jefferson under the rim for the tying basket, the Suns called Michael Redd’s number as the veteran had been hot tonight. Redd drove baseline but when he was double teamed he kicked it back out to Nash with just under five seconds remaining as the Utah defense scrambled to bottle Two Time up.
That did not happen as Nash somehow skirted past two defenders to take an off-balanced runner 17 feet from the hoop, which of course found the bottom of the net as well with 1.7 seconds remaining. Nash sauntered off the court with the look of a cold-blooded assassin on his face as teammates rushed to congratulate him.
“We ran a play to get Channing a shot and then Michael a shot and neither of them got it,” Nash said. “The ball kind of fumbled to me. I was able to get Millsap, I think, off his feet and I was able to lean in and just make one. I knew we didn’t have a ton of time, but I didn’t have to rush. I saw Gortat open under the basket, but I didn’t want to mess around with it.”
The Suns then held their breath as C.J. Miles hoisted a potential game-winning 3 from the corner that Millsap tipped it in yet the Suns were finally able to exhale and celebrate as the ball was clearly in his hands when the buzzer went off.
Phoenix seemed to have this game won when Frye banked in an off balanced 26-foot fadeaway to beat the shot clock buzzer and put the Suns up 103-98 with 1:06 remaining.
Yet the Jazz came right back as they had all game with a quick five points capped by a Jefferson jump shot and highlighted by Millsap picking Nash’s pocket.
The final flurry mirrored a chaotic game that saw every quarter played within two points with some big runs in between (the Suns led by nine in the second quarter and 10 midway through the fourth but the Jazz fought back every time).
The Suns’ bench was always in the middle of their runs as each reserve posted a positive +/- and each starter a negative one. Every backup played well tonight, and I cannot remember too many times that has happened this year.
Redd took over the lead scoring role off the pine with 19 points on 8-for-17 shooting a night after chipping in 16 in Sacramento. He was not bashful and his hot scoring night helped the Suns open up leads with Robin Lopez locking down the paint defensively and grabbing seven boards in 18 minutes.
Markieff Morris seemed to be everywhere in the first half when he scored all 11 of his points and provided a bundle of activity and Sebastian Telfair’s seven-point, two-assist fourth quarter put Phoenix in position to benefit from Nash’s heroics.
“It was huge,” Redd said of Phoenix’s bench play. “Again, it was a team win and we just try to pick up the slack with Grant not around. We just try to elevate our games. It was a great win, we just need to keep doing it.”
Redd’s bench scoring is so vital, especially with Shannon Brown in the starting lineup, because there are not many natural scorers in that reserve unit. When Redd can be that main second unit guy and with the rest of the bench players such solid defenders, all of a sudden you get a night like tonight when the bench won the Suns a critical road game.
To Gentry, the playoffs have already begun for Phoenix, but a win like this puts the Suns much closer to that goal.
The victory clinched the season series over the Jazz with one game still remaining on the penultimate night of the season in Utah. With the Suns now a half game ahead of the Jazz, that tiebreaker very well may come in play.
Phoenix now sits all alone in ninth place in the West and with the Nuggets inexplicably dropping a game in New Orleans tonight, the Suns trail both Houston and Denver by a mere one game for a playoff spot. They will face the Nuggets twice more and the Rockets once before the season ends, so those playoff spots are very much up for grabs for a Suns team that moved two games over .500 tonight for the first time all season.
“I think to be over .500 right now we’ve overachieved,” Nash said. “We are gaining confidence and we believe that we can keep winning. The spirit is good. Guys are sticking together and playing hard. When we were 12-19 it could have gone the other way. Obviously we hung together. The coaches have been phenomenal. We’ve stuck with it.
“We played hard and persevered and we are being rewarded for fighting hard.”
Grant Hill will represent the professional game as one of three winners of “The Mannie Jackson – Basketball’s Human Spirit Award.” He will be recognized on Sept. 6 during a lead up to the Basketball Hall of Fame ceremonies in Springfield, Mass.
According to a release, award winners must embrace “the core values of the game through hard work, dedication, and resilience; striving to continuously improve the community they serve, and making an ongoing commitment to others. Beyond the game, award winners must reflect the values of Mannie Jackson’s life-long mission to overcome obstacles and challenge the status quo, while taking responsibility for personal actions and seeking the highest standard of excellence.”
Chauncey Billups and Samuel Dalembert have previously won the award. UConn head coach Jim Calhoun and Dr. Richard Lapchick, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics In Sport founder and director, will be honored this year with Hill as well.
“It’s a tremendous honor because of the award and what it stands for,” Hill told The Arizona Republic.