Last night, the Phoenix Suns took care of business at home by beating the Detroit Pistons who had previously won five of their last seven games. The Suns led early but fell behind in the second quarter, and although the Suns kept it close, the Pistons held onto the lead all the way until the fourth quarter. But the determined Suns just kept pouring it on, hitting clutch shots and getting crucial stops at the end of the game to pull ahead and eventually win the game 109-101.
But this wasn't just any game. No, this game was a milestone of sorts that would prove to the fans, the NBA, and also the team itself that the Phoenix Suns were back. After a disappointing start to the season and plenty of struggles along the way, the Suns have seemed like a different team altogether since the All-Star break, winning eight of their ten games against some tough competition. This was the Suns' third game in just as many nights, and after winning their first two, the Suns were in position to go undefeated over the taxing three-game stretch.
By winning the third game in a row of a brutal back-to-back-to-back stretch, the Suns not only joined the prestigious ranks of the Miami Heat, OKC Thunder, and Chicago Bulls as the only teams to win all three of their consecutive games, they also brought their playoff hopes back to life by earning a record of 22-22 and reaching the .500 mark; an NBA barometer of sorts that separates the wheat from the chaff, or the contenders from the pretenders if you will.
The Suns are now in 9th place in the Western Conference standings, and only two games behind Denver for the 8th and final playoff seed. Even better, the Western Conference is so bunched together that the Suns are also only three games behind the L.A. Clippers for the fourth seed. What once seemed like an impossible long-shot now seems well within reach...The Suns are officially back in the playoff hunt.
The win last night was a total team effort with multiple contributions that helped make a difference. It seems like just yesterday that the only consistency the Suns could count on was from Steve Nash and Marcin Gortat. However, last night nearly every player that stepped on the court found a way to help the team win, and I believe that has been the biggest difference in the recent success of the Suns.
Here are some of the other reasons I believe the Suns were successful against not only the Pistons last night but since the All-Star break as a whole:
Keys To Victory:
- Jared Dudley is Ballin'! - Dudley started off the season playing inconsistently and missing a lot of open shots. I'm not sure if it was the lockout or what, but he didn't seem like the same energetic, blue-collar player the fans had come to know and love...So much that Alvin Gentry even toyed with the starting lineup, sending Dudley back to the bench briefly in search of a better option. But as the season has progressed, Dudley has returned to form and is playing with tons of energy, hustle, and intensity. Dudley has led the team in scoring in two of the last four games and is shooting lights out from beyond the arc. In last night's game Dudley scored 23 points and also grabbed 7 rebounds. This was a great effort on Dudley's part and he's been one of the biggest reasons for this team's recent success.
- Channing Frye is Playing Like a Big! - Frye has long had the reputation of being a one-trick pony of sorts in the NBA, an enigmatic 7-foot power forward who only stands behind the arc and shoots three's. Well that;s an awesome weapon for a team to have when the shots are falling, but as Channing quickly learned at the start of the season, when his shot wasn't "juicy", he was more of a liability than an asset. Well Frye has since abandoned his former way of playing and has begun to roam around the paint more often, even looking for opportunities to score inside. But not only that, he is hot on the heels of Marcin Gortat for the title of leading rebounder since the All-Star break. Gortat has 89 rebounds over the last 10 games for an 8.9 average, and Frye has 79 rebounds over the last 10 games for a 7.9 average. Like last night, Frye had an overall poor night of shooting, but his 13 rebounds was a huge help to the team and kept him on the floor long enough for his shot to return in time for a big three near the end of the fourth quarter to help the Suns secure the win.
- Robin Lopez Has Played Well Off the Bench! - While center Marcin Gortat remains the starter for the Suns and still the most offensively skilled and best rebounding big man on the team, Robin Lopez has been playing very well recently, so well in fact that Alvin Gentry has been leaving him in the game when the starters return to close it out in the fourth quarter over the last three games. Robin's play has been another noticeable improvement since the All-Star break, and though I'm not sure what the reason is, his effectiveness and presence in the paint has been night and day from earlier in the season. When Gortat goes to the bench Lopez has stepped up and provided quality minutes lately, and having a very capable big man patrolling the paint at all times is a huge advantage for the Suns.
- Shannon Brown has made a difference! - At first many Suns fans cringed when they saw Shannon Brown enter the games as he often jacked up bad shots and played out of control, and while he still does both of those things at times, his play as of late has been much more efficient and productive, and the excitement he brings with his big shots and huge dunks spark the electric atmosphere surrounding the fans and his teammates alike. Brown has come on strong as one of the most consistent reserves for the Suns this season, and his energy has been contagious.
Defense! - Elston Turner has done wonders with implementing defense and rebounding into this team and incorporating it into the fast paced offense that the Suns like to employ. There have been plenty of growing pains along the way, but there definitely seems to be a good balance of both offense and defense now, and a new commitment to rebounding that all of the players seem to have bought into. With Gentry directing the offense back to their ways of scoring over 100 per game, and Turner keeping the Suns committed at the other end of the floor, the Suns seem like a much more complete team now, and I believe this is a big factor for their recent success.
- Alvin Gentry is Adjusting! - While most Suns' fans realize that Gentry is the type of coach who likes to go deep into his bench, some may not realize his method of substituting starters and reserves as an entire unit, rather than relieving individual players one at a time and mixing the units together, has caused our second unit to suffer at times and lose the leads that the starters had built. Gentry has recently begun mixing the lineups up a bit more often to lessen the blow of pulling all the starters off the floor at the same time. For instance, he tried substituting the bench in for the starters as a unit in the second quarter last night and the Suns quickly fell behind. Near the end of the third quarter, he slowly substituted a few players at a time instead, and it worked much better. Gentry has also been playing with the lineups and looking for the right mix of players, and while this remains in flux, he seems to have found a winning formula recently and it's really starting to pay off.
As long as the Suns continue to play hard as a team and the individual players continue to work hard at improving their games, I see no reason why this team can't continue it's winning ways. I never would have thought the Suns would be in this position after such a rough start to the season, but they have fought very hard to prove that they can be a winning team who can compete with anyone when they are playing well together. Their 8-2 record since the All-Star break is among one of the best in the league, and the rest of the NBA is beginning to take notice. The Suns may not have the flashiest players, or an owner with the deepest pockets, but they do have a real team atmosphere they've built together headed by two ageless vets who also happen to be two of the finest, classiest ambassadors of the game that the league has ever known. I believe their influence, along with the overall attitude and climate of the organization, has done wonders for bringing these players together and helping each and every one of them truly buy into this team's philosophy and the belief that they can win.