New York Knicks 99, Phoenix Suns 97 — J.R. Smith plays hero


PHOENIX — For 47 minutes and 14 seconds, the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks played an imperfect basketball game with the Knicks missing two of their best players and the Suns lacking their top dog for the second half.

As so often happens in the NBA, particularly for a Suns squad that leads the league in games decided by three points or fewer, that only mattered to bring us to the final eventful 46 seconds that saw the Suns lose to the Knicks 99-97 in heartbreaking, buzzer-beating fashion.

“We hit that shot or we stop that shot then we win the game and everything’s all happy,” said Suns wing Jared Dudley.

But everything wasn’t all happy because the Knicks’ go-to guy du jour came through in the clutch whereas the Suns didn’t seem to know where to turn in the final seconds.

At least that’s what the headline for this game will scream as the Knicks were able to withstand the losses of their two leading scorers, Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton, to defeat the Suns with some Hero Ball shots from J.R. Smith, who turned out to be a much better go-to guy than anyone on the Phoenix side.

After Dudley drew a foul on James White and canned two free throws to add to his career-high 36-point night and put Phoenix up 97-95 with 34.5 seconds left, the Knicks drew up the ultimate Hero Ball play.

Smith caught the ball at the “S” far beyond the three-point line with six seconds left on the shot clock and about 16 on the game clock with P.J. Tucker right in his grill. Tucker stayed with Smith every step of the way through a spin and eventual fadeaway jumper from 18 feet away … that of course found the bottom of the net to tie the game.

That left the Suns with the ball and 10.6 ticks remaining on the clock in a situation that has plagued them all season long, as Phoenix has made just 3-of-13 shots (23.1 percent) when trailing by five or fewer points with one minute left, three or fewer with 30 seconds remaining or tied, according to the NBA’s advanced stats site.

Dudley was en fuego in this one so he inbounded the ball and was screened by Tucker, Shannon Brown and Marcin Gortat with the end goal being to get him an open shot.

Tyson Chandler switched onto JD on the last screen, which left Gortat free to seal Smith and roll toward the hoop for what likely would have been an easy layup or a foul on Chris Copeland at worst.

Telfair tried to hit Gortat with a bounce pass, but Kidd deflected it back to him, and the worst possible scenario ensued: Chandler pressured Bassy and forced him to step out of bounds with a second left, giving the Knicks one final shot to win it in regulation.

“The play was for me to come off a triple screen on the baseline and get the ball,” Dudley said. “Obviously if they switch, I thought Gortat was open on that. I couldn’t see the pass, but they said he was open so I think J-Kidd did a good job of deflecting it. I think it was out on Bassy. It happened so fast and obviously you want to keep it for the last shot and live with that, but we gave them one second and J.R. hit a big shot.”

It’s unlikely that Telfair would have knocked down the desperation heave in Chandler’s face had he not stepped out of bounds, but by doing so the Knicks had all the opportunity they needed to steal this one in regulation with one second left.

Usually this would be Melo’s time to take a Hero Ball shot, but with him out, the Knicks ran Smith around a Chandler screen that hardly deterred Tucker, yet he drilled a jumper in P.J.’s face anyways before celebrating with a little salsa dance a la Victor Cruz.

“I’m always a guy that you never let the best player beat you, and J.R. was the best player and he definitely beat us with those shots,” Dudley said. “He made a tough shot. P.J. did a great job defensively. You can’t knock that.”

Moments later in the Suns’ locker room, the shots still stung Tucker as he sat at his locker with a towel over his head seemingly distraught over his misfortune.

On the surface, the story is that the Knicks had a clutch go-to guy who nailed clutch go-to guy shots, and the Suns didn’t so they fumbled and bumbled away their crunch time possession.

The way I see it is the Suns did all they could to force Smith to take two tough shots and he was just better than them on this night. I have been writing for years about how I wish teams would actually call a play in crunch time rather than just giving the ball to their best player, so tonight would hardly be a time to contradict myself despite my preferred strategy ultimately failing on this occasion.

Particularly since the Suns lack that go-to player, I like the play call. The problem was the execution, particularly Telfair throwing a pass that Kidd could easily deflect before the play went to Hell. If Telfair executes the pass, we’re talking about Gortat’s game-winning dunk and perhaps Smith wouldn’t even have had the chance to be the hero.

On this night the Suns seemed to have a go-to guy in Jared Dudley, who poured in a career-high 36 points, which is the most a Sun has scored since March 27 when Brown scored 32 against the Spurs. No Phoenix player has scored more since Jason Richardson went for 39 on Nov. 28, 2010, at Denver.

Dudley set the tone with 13 in the first quarter and kept it up throughout a night in which he hit 11-of-17 shots, including 5-of-8 threes and 9-of-9 free throws.

“I was open, I was getting up enough shots,” Dudley said. “I was shooting the ball well from the free-throw line. I think that any time any player on our team has it going early like that, Alvin searches for them. I probably had the most plays ever ran for me all season, and I think I rewarded him by knocking them down. For us to be successful I have to be aggressive.”

This was especially true since Dragic missed the second half with hip, wrist and back contusions after being knocked to the ground by Smith on a breakaway layup attempt near the end of the first half.

Dragic landed awkwardly after Smith’s shoulder bumped Dragic’s butt to set him wildly off course in midair. It’s anyone’s guess whether Smith tried to undercut him or if he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time for a foul that looked worse because of the end result.

“J.R., he’s not that kind of player,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “He plays hard and he competes like crazy. He’s not that kind of player. It was an accident, it’s one of those things that happens, but you know, he plays hard and he competes like crazy. … (Dragic) is just going to be really sore. I think his wrist is a little sore. We’ll kind of check it out and evaluate it, and we’ll see in the morning.”

I saw Dragic walking out of the locker room and he seemed to be moving gingerly with something like an ice pack taped to his left hand. But the Suns were still able to throttle the Knicks for a 20-4 run in the third quarter to get back into the game without him.

In the end, Smith hit two incredibly difficult shots on a night he attempted 27 of them but made just 11. Because they went in and the Suns’ final play failed miserably, it’s easy to craft a narrative of Smith as a hero the Suns could not match.

Yet as the Suns sink deeper into the abyss with a vicious three-game road trip staring them in the face, it’s appropriate to note that plays cannot be judged solely by their end result, and on that count the only blame the Suns deserve for their late-game play is in their execution.

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Telfair played the entire second half with Dragic out, as the coaching staff clearly had no confidence in rookie point guard Kendall Marshall tonight. Telfair scored nine points and dished three assists in the half. Dudley and Brown also played the entire second half save for one second for Shannon.

“I gave it my all,” Telfair said. “I am happy for the opportunity, but it is sad to see Dragic take a spill like that. You do not want to see any of your teammates hit the floor like that. Hopefully he will be back next game.”