For the second consecutive game the Phoenix Suns didn’t play exceptionally well for three plus quarters, and it didn’t matter. Just like their Wednesday night match against the Charlotte Hornets, the Suns played their best when it mattered the most. They finished strong by scoring 32 points in the fourth quarter and left town with a 99-90 victory over the New York Knicks (5-24).
The win moved the Suns (14-14) back to .500.
Isaiah Thomas, who scored 22 points off the bench, hit an off balance three pointer after an offensive rebound by PJ Tucker to give Phoenix a 95-86 lead with just over a minute and a half remaining to put this one away.
Eric Bledsoe scored 13 of his game high 25 points in the fourth quarter, including seven in a row off rim runs that gave the Suns some breathing room late in the quarter. Bledsoe added 10 rebounds for his fourth double-double of the year.
Phoenix started off hot by taking an early 15-4 lead and setting a fast tempo that left the Knicks out of sorts.
The Knicks got their act together behind some carelessness from the Suns and pristine ball movement on their part, eventually turning the 11 point deficit into a 47-40 lead after consecutive three pointers from Jose Calderon and Tim Hardaway.
Baskets from Thomas and Bledsoe left the Suns down by three at the half.
The third quarter was a back and forth affair with neither team being able to assert dominance. Markeiff Morris kept the Suns in it by scoring eight consecutive points early in the third.
P.J. Tucker held his own against Carmelo Anthony and made him work hard for all of his shots, despite Anthony finishing with 25 points.
Ultimately the Knicks, who have struggled in close games all year, didn’t have the perimeter defenders to slow down Bledsoe or Thomas when it mattered most and as a result lost their 24th game, which is more losses than the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Suns had lost six of their last seven, the Knicks 13 out of their last 14. And it was evident why throughout the first half. The teams combined for 15 turnovers and just looked out of sync. The Suns blew a three-on-one in which Eric Bledsoe missed a tough reverse lay-up, followed by three consecutive unsuccessful put-back attempts from right under the basket. Phoenix couldn’t consistently finish on the fast break and struggled to get into any kind of rhythm once the pace slowed down in the second quarter. The Suns failure to box out led to 17 offensive rebounds for the Knicks and 18 second chance points, which negated a couple of solid defensive possessions.
Despite the plethora of talented guards on their roster the Suns haven’t been particularly good at moving the basketball. Currently 18th in the league in assists per game, the Suns were visibly selfish against the Hornets, preferring to generate their offense out of one-on-one antics versus strong ball movement. Clearly Jeff Hornacek emphasized the need to play as a unit as the Suns opened up the game with one of their best possessions of the year with four players touching the ball, which resulted in a wide-open corner thee for Bledsoe.
Throughout the quarter the Suns looked to make the extra pass and even if they didn’t always convert, it resulted in easy looks Phoenix doesn’t get enough of. The narrative flipped in the second quarter while the Suns reverting to their one pass and a shot ways, while the Knicks used penetration to generate passing lanes and in turn open shots to drive that 18-point turnaround. New York had a lot of success with their two-point guard line-up of Calderon and Pablo Prigioni as they consistently passed up good shots for better ones.
The Suns at their best are an up-tempo team that generates offense through relentlessly attacking the rim. They weren’t at their best. After racing out to an early 15-4 lead the guards were weirdly passive up to the fourth quarter. Thomas and Gerald Green in particular were content to settle for contested jumpers. Thomas was one of the best finishers in basketball last year and needs to get to the basket. On the bright side, most of Thomas’s jumpers came from behind the arc (3-5 this game) while last year he mostly subsisted on the less efficient midrange variety. Green contributed little going 3-9 from the field, including 1-6 from behind the arc, while adding six turnovers for good measure. Phoenix has too much of a reliance on Green’s streaky shooting from game to game and he has to be able to leverage his otherworldly athleticism into free throws when his jumper isn’t falling.
The Suns are second in the NBA for technical fouls and at times it almost seems like it’s intentional. Markieff Morris threw up a full-court shot after the buzzer that landed in the crowd resulting in (you guessed it) a technical and a made free throw for Anthony to open the second half. Unfortunately for Phoenix it wasn’t the first time this season as Bledsoe has one as well. This team isn’t good enough to make thoughtless errors and win, and though it didn’t tonight, they’ve cost the Suns winnable games throughout the season and will continue to do so.