After two seasons of being beaten on a handful of buzzer beaters, the Phoenix Suns have now beaten the buzzer with putbacks at the end of three of their last five quarters of play.
First, they won the Sunday game with a buzzer beater (Thanks Mirza!), then P.J. Tucker closed the half with a putback to give the Suns a two-point lead, and then Alex Len did the same at the end of the third quarter with a putback as time expired (giving the Suns a much-needed 11-point lead).
I asked the coach if he told the players they're overdoing it on buzzer beaters, and to keep some in their back pocket for games later in the season.
First, he looked at me like I was crazy. "What?" he said. "When?"
I re-explained, with the help of Jerry Brown, long-time media member covering the Suns, and when he finally picked on what I was laying down, he quipped, "Heck no. We'd need all of them we can get."
Sure enough, after a three-point lead, the two made shots at the end of the second and third quarter did in fact spell the difference between a win and a loss.
The Suns had a pair of 10-point leads in the fourth quarter, but frittered it away each time with a loss of focus. Hornacek cited the long road trip as a possible cause.
"I think it was because they were mentally tired, probably physically tired too," Hornacek said about the pair of blown leads. "Even though we got back yesterday, it's no excuse, you got to try to battle through that and stay focused. But we did a couple crazy things, things coming out of timeouts where you're going, ‘what are you doing?'.
"That's why it's a good win for them because they stuck with it, they gutted it out. When you're tired like that it's hard to think, and they still were able to pull it out."
It's good to see the Suns build on Monday's momentum to get another close win tonight. In fact, the Suns set a franchise record with their 7th consecutive game decided by 5 points or less. No prior Suns team in nearly 50 years had faced such closing pressure. The Suns are 3-4 in that stretch.
The game was tied 102-102 after the second blown 10-point lead, but Eric Bledsoe scored a big basket to put the Suns back in front for good.
"We kept our composure and our edge," Bledsoe said of the close losses on the trip becoming wins the last two games. "And stayed poised and finished the game off strong. Like you said, we've been in all those situations, the whole road trip. Now it's definitely coming in our favor."
Hopefully, the odds will ever be in the Suns favor the rest of the season after enduring a year and a half of close loss after close loss.
"Every game is gonna be tough," Bledsoe said. "Especially in the position we're in right now, the way the league is now it's so competitive top to bottom. Everybody's playing great right now. The good teams is playing bad right now, and the bad teams got a lot of talent, they're picking it up. We've just got to fight."
The Suns are still in 9th place in the West (is there any other seeding for the Suns?), 3 wins out of 3rd place and only 2 wins ahead of 13h place.
Brandon Knight is happy the Suns closed it out, but reminded everyone that it's always just about the home team.
"That's the NBA," he said of one team "closing" the game while the other fails at the attempt. "People don't just lay down in this league, everybody's here for a reason, so you have to expect everybody's best and that's what Orlando did. They're playing well, I think they've won six out of seven."
Since, since moving Victor Oladipo to the bench and Evan Fournier to the starting lineup, the Magic had won 6 of 7, including the night before in Denver. But the Suns are feasting on tired teams this season, now 7-0 against teams that had played the night before. They are only 3-13 against teams with the same, or more, rest.
Knight always has a big-picture view, and last night was no exception.
"We've just got to continue to stick together," Knight said. "It's a long season, we'll have ups and downs, and that's what we're doing right now. We have a very talented group, we believe in ourselves, we put the work in, we put the time in, so it's just a matter of going on the court and improving on our mistakes."
It really helps that big men Mirza Teletovic, Jon Leuer and Alex Len have stepped up after Tyson Chandler (ankle) and Markieff Morris (ineffectiveness, nicks, bruises, malaise) have stepped back.
"We need that," he said of Mirza's quick release. "Eric and Brandon can penetrate. We need that threat from the outside. We didn't shoot the ball very well tonight obviously from the three point line, so he kind of saved us in that department. That was big for us."
Teletovic not only had some pretty catch-and-shoots, he had five assists and every one of them was the product of great high-post and perimeter vision to another big man near the rim.
Alex Len stole the big man show though, with career highs in points (20) and rebounds (14). His 20 points could have been closer to 30 if he'd made his and-one opportunities and made all his free throws.
"Alex was great," Hornacek said. "He gave us that big lift. He had energy. He's one of the young guys. These last three games he's been playing fantastic. Alex Len is probably player of the game."
He was on fire in the pick and roll.
"I've got to give credit to my teammates," Alex Len said. "They were looking for me the whole night. I was setting screens getting them open, depending, then with open looks, finding me in the pick and roll switch."
Len looked more comfortable than usual rolling to the basket hard after a pick.
"Yeah, I actually worked this morning with Eric and Brandon, me and Tyson on the ball-screen situations," he said. "When I set screens how to find each other a little bit in the pick-and-roll. So we worked on that, probably left the shootaround after another 30 minutes and it worked today."
Bledsoe was effusive about Len.
"Unbelievable," he said Len's game. "As the season goes on, you're gonna see more and more of him being consistent. It's just playing time right now and his confidence. His confidence was big tonight and I was just encouraging him all night, just be the guy that give him even more. He did a great job on both ends of the floor."
The Suns have now won two in a row, and thanks to the late-game closing they may just have more confidence now than at any time this season.
Markieff Morris missed the game with a sinus infection. Uh huh.