Phoenix Suns 101, Sacramento Kings 90 — Tale of two halves


PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns entered tonight’s game coming off their two most impressive victories of the season and faced an opponent that had won just a single road game all year.

So naturally the Suns trailed by 19 points before fighting back with a scintillating third quarter to win going away, 101-90 over the Sacramento Kings.

“Well, that was interesting,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “I think Scola said it best in the locker room when we were gathering and that’s that we have to play hard for 48 minutes. Not for 24 or 30 or whatever. We have to play hard for 48 minutes and we did not do that tonight. We played a great second half but we don’t want to have that kind of start.

“On the flip side I thought we were really good in the second half. Our defense was terrific, we did a great job of moving the basketball and we even passed on some open shots but all in all it’s a win and we will take it. We just need wins any way that we can get them. I thought we were excellent in the second half.”

Nothing comes easy these days for the Suns, who trailed 52-33 after the Kings stuck a 23-4 run on them. It doesn’t get worse in the NBA this season than being blown out by Sacramento on your home floor when you just had two days off and they were crushed the night before.

Making matters worse, the Kings were missing the services of Tyreke Evans and Marcus Thornton and DeMarcus Cousins was suffering through an awful game, so the large deficit really came down to Phoenix not playing hard enough and getting killed on the boards (30-19 in the first half) and in the hustle department.

After reaching that 19-point low point, the Suns finally asserted themselves as the better team by ripping off a 34-10 run, much of it coming in a dominant third quarter in which Shannon Brown scored as many points as the Kings (14). Suddenly the ball movement was crisp, Phoenix was ahead on the glass and Sacto was suffocated with 31.8 percent shooting.

“NBA, 10-15 points is not big, especially early on,” Jared Dudey said. “That’s a team that will let you back in it. I thought just the energy level, and it’s tough. It’s Monday, it’s not a good crowd out there when it comes to attendance-wise, and sometimes you can let that bring you down. We have to do better, and the more wins we get the more fans we’ll get.”

Indeed USAC was a morgue in the early going, with the announced crowd of 13,068 not providing the Suns with much energy and the Suns not giving them much reason to cheer. The Suns must know by now that they must play with optimum energy every night if they want to avoid losing to even the worst teams in the league, and if not they learned it once again tonight.

“We are in no position to overlook anyone,” Gentry said. “I look on the right side and we have 15 losses. So we can’t overlook anyone. Not anyone in this state, including Chaparral High. We can’t afford to overlook anyone. I think we got off to slow start but it didn’t have anything to do with being overconfident or anything like that. We just didn’t have the energy to start the game and we found a way to get the energy in the second half.”

Phoenix’s new starting lineup of Dragic-Brown-Dudley-Scola-Gortat improved to 3-0 as the Suns won three in a row for the first time all season, and they owe the victory to the efforts of this starting unit. In the 22 minutes they shared the floor, the Suns outscored the Kings 54-30, according to the NBA’s advanced stats tool. They shot 59 percent from the field, yielded 35.3 percent shooting and held their own on the glass.

Each of the starters played well, with Brown exploding for 22 on 10-for-13 shooting, Dudley scoring 20 including a pair of critical late treys, Gortat filling the box score with 14 points, 13 boards and six blocks, Dragic dishing seven dimes, and finally Luis Scola doing it all with 14 points, a career-high 10 assists and six boards.

“I hope he’s going to play like that every game,” Dragic said of Scola. “We need those assists, and we need guys to knock down their shots. Today we played a lot of pick-and-roll and they were helping from Luis. I passed to Luis, he was open, and he made that pass to some open guy and they made shots.”

Dudley praised the unselfishness of this lineup with Scola being the triggerman quite often tonight and shooters spacing the floor in Dudley and Brown.

Defensively, the key to the Suns’ efforts unequivocally revolved around shutting down DeMarcus Cousins during his 1-for-10 performance. Cousins destroyed Gortat and the Suns last season by averaging 27.7 points and 11.7 boards per game, including a 41-point evisceration on 16-for-25 shooting the last time these squads met up on April 3.

The Suns’ game plan this time around was to double team Cousins to take away Sacramento’s best option and force others to beat them. They did at times, as Jimmer Fredette scored a career-high 22 points with some hot shooting, but ultimately with nothing offensively from Cousins the Kings could not hang on for the victory.

Gortat got three of his six blocks against the Kentucky product and for once thoroughly dominated their matchup down low.

“I think I came ready to play,” Gortat said. “The past two weeks I’ve been lifting really hard, so I felt really powerful and energetic at the same time. Quite honestly, I don’t think he really wanted to play today. That’s just how it is.”

By neutralizing Cousins the Suns were able to overcome yet another double-digit deficit, their sixth in 10 home victories, and the finish was good enough that Phoenix has now won consecutive games by double figures after doing that just three times in its first 23 games.

The Suns somehow also own the third-longest winning streak in the NBA (to be fair it still pails in comparison to OKC’s 11-gamer and the Clippers’ 10-gamer), as they have started to move past that ugly seven-game losing streak that directly preceded it.

At the end of the day, you can’t really get too excited about beating Sacramento at home, but it sure beats the alternative on a night the Suns trailed by 19.

“We won a game we’re supposed to win,” Dudley said. “Now we need to come back on Wednesday and win a game we’re supposed to get.”

And 1

Dudley has now scored 20 in consecutive games for the fourth time in his career. He did not score that many points in any of the team’s first 23 contests. … Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Greg Monroe and Nicolas Batum were the only non-guards to post double-digit assists before Scola did so tonight. … Gortat has recorded back-to-back double-doubles for the first time since Nov. 5-7. He also tied an NBA season high with four games of five or more blocks.