[Note by Mike Lisboa, 12/13/09 8:50 AM PST ]
Sorry this didn't get published until the morning... I fell asleep re-watching the game last night before publishing.
At some point down the road, the Suns will probably look back on this loss and the Mavericks loss as two games they'd like to have back. Phoenix wasn't supposed to compete in this game, much less have a shot at winning, coming off a grueling win against the Orlando Magic last night. But someone forgot to tell Steve Nash.
Nash hit his first 5 shots to help the Suns to an early 13-5 lead. He looked like a man possessed. The Suns would not roll over on the 2nd night of this particular back to back. However, the early momentum did not last long as Carmelo Anthony and the Nuggets found their shooting touch, and eventually took 16-15 lead halfway through the quarter. From then on, the rest of the period was a back and forth dogfight resulting in a 29-26 Nugget lead. Nash and Amare Stoudemire accounted for nearly all the Suns 1st quarter points, but the real story might have been Robin Lopez' 3 fouls in just under 4 minutes of play.
After picking up 5 fouls in 5 minutes against the Magic, Robin proceeded to melt down defensively again, picking up all 3 of his fouls in quick succession in 1 quarter. It might have been the best thing to happen to the Suns in the first quarter as it allowed Lou Amundson to come off the bench and log some heavy minutes. Lou was everywhere in the 2nd quarter, starting things off with a block on the first play of the quarter.
The Suns started the 2nd quarter with a line-up of Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, Grant Hill, Lou Amundson and Channing Frye and proceeded to go on a 19-2 run. Everything went the Suns' way during this stretch. Dragic was aggressive going to the hoop on one end and playing fearless defense on Ty Lawson at the other. Amundson was a beast on the boards, tipping balls back and pulling down everything in sight. Channing Frye was hitting from range and even drawing contact driving to the hoop.
Defensively, the Suns showed active hands, poking, prodding, blocking and tipping balls that Denver brought into the paint. Aggressiveness and activity were the Suns' hallmarks in the second quarter and they were rewarded. (It also didn't hurt that what open looks the Nuggets did get weren't falling.) The Nuggets did not score a field goal in the first 5:30 of the quarter. Nash checked back in around the 5 minute mark and continued his hot shooting. 1 minute later, the Suns had their largest lead of the game at 52-35. There was so much frustration with how the game was going for Denver that both Carmelo Anthony and George Karl received technical fouls complaining about the officiating. That shoe would soon enough be on the other foot.
This would be their high water mark as they shot 55% for the quarter while holding the Nuggets to 39% shooting and forcing 8 turnovers. Lou Amundson alone finished the 2nd with 8 points, 8 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks. Grant Hill defended Carmelo Anthony as well as anyone this season in the first half, holding him to 12 points on 4-12 shooting. The Suns would take a 60-47 lead into halftime on the strength of this performance.
[Note by Mike Lisboa, 12/13/09 9:10 AM PST ]
I don't know how I forgot to mention this: This might have been the best quarter of basketball the Suns have played all year. It was something to behold.
In the 3rd quarter the wheels came off for the Suns. Chauncey Billups and Melo both found their stroke scoring 10 points each. The Suns for their part went ice cold, shooting 36% and turning the ball over 6 times (after only committing 8 turnovers in the first half). While Steve Nash continued his blistering offense going 3-4 from the field, the rest of the Suns were a paltry 3-11. The Nuggets were far more aggressive in the 3rd quarter, slashing and cutting to the hoop and drawing contact. They almost matched the Suns run from the 2nd quarter with an 18-2 run of their own to cut the Suns lead to 1 point. The Suns had lead by as much as 17 early in the quarter.
The 4th quarter was a back and forth affair and the Suns had a chance right down to the wire. The Suns traded baskets with the Nuggets for the first 5 minutes of the 4th quarter until the Suns had a disastrous stretch of game where they turned it over on 3 consecutive trips down the floor. 2 of those turnovers were offensive fouls on Amare Stoudemire, also his 4th and 5th fouls for the game. Turnovers played a large part in the Suns' unraveling. They had 6 in the 4th quarter and 20 for the game. The Suns actually shot a scorching 69% in the 4th but had 6 fewer shots than the Nuggets due to turnovers and offensive rebounds (the Nuggets had 15 for the game, 6 in the 4th quarter).
With just under 4 minutes left, the Nuggets began to assert control. After yet another Suns turnover on a bad pass from Channing Frye to Lou Amundson, Carmelo Anthony came down and scored on a put-back of his own miss to put the Nuggets up 94-92. On the ensuing 4 possessions Steve Nash and Chauncey Billups put on a clinic in clutch, with Nash hitting a 3-ball and a jumper in the lane, while Mr. Big Shot hit a pair of 3s of his own to give the Nuggets a 100-97 lead. On the next trip down, Kenyon Martin got Nash on a switch and blocked his fadeaway attempt. On the ensuing Nuggets' possession with 1:36 to go, Billups missed a long jumper, but drew a blocking foul on Grant Hill after Denver collected the offensive rebound. He went 1 of 2 at the line to give the Nugs a 4 point lead with 1:18.
After Grant Hill nearly turned the ball over on an inbound pass a few seconds later, Nash layed in a finger-roll with 1:00 to go to pull the Suns within 2 points. Grant Hill force a Carmelo miss to get the Suns the ball back with 30 seconds to go.
With the Suns trailing by 2, on what would be the Suns' final meaningful possession, Steve Nash found himself covered by Nene at the arc. Nash drove left, had some arm-to-arm contact with Nene and had his lay-up attempt blocked by the Brazilian center. No foul was called on the play despite the obvious contact. What happened next truly doomed the Suns. After the miss, Carmelo Anthony rebounded the ball with 7.8 seconds left on the game clock. The nearest Sun to Anthony was Steve Nash. Angry about the non-call and complaining to the official underneath the basket, Nash did not turn and foul Anthony. Amare Stoudemire was the 2nd closest and seemed to not understand the need to foul until Anthony had already gotten around him. Jared Dudley, he of the high basketball IQ, came flying in to commit the foul, but overpursued and got screened away from Melo, allowing Anthony to get downcourt where he was eventually fouled by Channing Frye after running the clock down to 2.0 seconds.
At this point, the Suns were down by 2 with a career 80% free throw shooter going to the line. Standard practice here is to hope he misses 1 of 2 and do what you can with the remaining 2 seconds on the clock. Except the Suns never got the chance. Alvin Gentry went ballistic on the referees, getting ejected from the game. 2 technical free throws plus 2 free throws for the foul later and the Suns are down by 6 with not even a prayer of a chance at a last second shot.
To blame the Suns' loss on poor officiating at the end of the game is to ignore the several other glaring holes in the Suns' game in the second half: giving up 10 offensive rebounds, turning the ball over 12 times, scoring only 39 points while giving up 58. It also ignores how much better Denver played in the second half: only 3 turnovers, 8 steals, and a 20-13 rebounding edge. Sure, the Nuggets got to the line 15 more times than the Suns, but that was to be expected. The Nuggets are hands-down the most aggressive and effective team in the NBA at getting to the line, with a 40.8% Free Throw Rate (ratio of number of free throws made to number of field goals attempted). The Suns, by contrast, are in the middle of the pack in the NBA, with a 29.6% rate, which makes sense given the Suns' reliance on jumpers and 3 pointers.
These are the the things that the players on both teams have control over by how they play the game. They cannot control how and when the whistle does and does not blow. All they can do is execute and hope for the best. Last night, the Suns problems with execution were the same as they have been all season: giving up too many offensive rebounds and turnovers coupled with weak defensive rotations (J.R. Smith goes 0-8? Bullet dodged.). These are things that can be fixed and worked on and improved upon. So can in-game awareness of things like getting one's toes behind the line on a 3-pointer (see below in "Notes"). If Nash and Frye do that over the course of the game, the Suns are up by 1 when Nash makes his fateful drive. If, instead of wondering about the non-call, Nash or Amare makes a move to foul Carmelo Anthony, maybe the Suns have a shot at getting the ball back with 5-7 seconds left on the clock instead of 2. If Gentry doesn't lose his cool, if Amare takes better care of the ball, if J-Rich hits that shot, etc.
The Suns had ample opportunities to win this game even with a bad call or two going against them. Is NBA refereeing inconsistent and frustrating? Sometimes. Should it be more transparent and are reforms necessary? Definitely. Is it an over-riding factor in determining the outcome of games? Very, very rarely. And last night was not one of those times.
- So much for bigger or longer defenders slowing down Steve Nash: 11-17 FG, 28 points and 7 assists with only 2 turnovers. I think the longer defenders do disrupt his ability to share the ball but it helps if the people he's passing it to make their shots, too.
- Amare Stoudemire seems to be struggling to figure out when to take the jumper and when to take it to the hole. In the 3rd quarter when Denver was at the tail end of their big run, he made a pair of nice moves to the bucket, one that resulted in a score and the other in a trip to the line. However, his 7 turnovers for the game may make him a little gunshy about puttling the ball on the floor in the future.
- For a team that likes to live and die by the 3 ball, the Suns did a poor job of making sure their feet were behind the line last night. 3 potential 3-pointers were ruled 2-pointers upon official review because of toes on the line. 1 by Nash, 2 by Frye.
- It was nice to see Channing Frye have a strong offensive showing on the road and on the second night of a back to back.
- Jason Richardson on the other hand continues to struggle. Over the last 10 games, J-Rich is shooting only 45.1% on is field goals and 33.3% from 3 point land. Over the last 5, it's even worse with 41.4 FG% and 25.0 3PT%.
- Goran Dragic had a solid night with 4 points, 4 assists and a steal with only one turnover leading the 2nd unit as well as containing Ty Lawson (2 points, 1 assist, 2 turnovers, -18 for the game). Point guards were not the problem for the Suns last night.
- Jared Dudley's 3 point shooting continues to impress. After going 2-3 from downtown last night, he leads the Suns, hitting 48.8% of his shots behind the arc.
- If nothing else, the Suns showed they CAN be competitive against tough competition on the second night of back-to-backs when the spirit moves them. Nash, Hill, and Stoudemire all logged over 34 minutes in last night's game (with Grant Hill leading all Suns with 42:45).
- Get ready for some congestion downtown: 8 of the Suns' next 10 games are at home... finally!