The Phoenix Suns had an 11-point lead on the East-leading Atlanta Hawks with three minutes to go in the fourth quarter, but then scored only 16 points in the final 15 minutes and lost the game on a 20-point turnaround.
"I thought we played well for three quarters," Suns coach Hornacek said. "We had that stretch where we had an 11 point lead and it disappeared quickly then we ran out of gas. All of a sudden we were running in sand and couldn't get into anything. I'm not sure why they got so tired, but we are going to have to work on that."
Atlanta coach Budenholzer was happy about it.
"I thought the ball movement and the sharing was better the third quarter and fourth quarter," Bud said of the Hawks 31-14 finish. "I think our intensity can raise but I don't think that's something that we want to sit back and rely on. I thought our defense was better in the second half."
The Hawks were 3-for-11 on threes until that final quarter where they made 5 of 7 in the furious rally.
"We believe in our shooters," Budenholzer said. "We believe in moving the ball and keeping the court spaced. At some points most nights it turns and the percentages, if they aren't with you early they'll come around late. We encourage it, we want to be aggressive and our guys know we believe in the three ball and we want them to shoot it."
Easy to say that afterward, but then again these are the 51-14 Hawks. Give me whatever they're drinking.
Coach Hornacek, on the other hand, needs to stay away from that hemlock.
"We talked about why we are getting so tired," he lamented. "We had practice yesterday, but we didn't do anything but shoot so we shouldn't be tired. It's always that fine line of conditioning. Are they tired because its game 70 or whatever it is or is it just the conditioning part of it? I'm starting to believe it is the conditioning part so we are going to have to do more running when we practice."
Unfortunately, Alex Len had yet another ankle sprain. He was really effective against the Hawks defensively, despite only grabbing 7 boards and blocking no shots. The Suns were +12 on the scoreboard with him on the floor.
But he went down with another ankle sprain after contesting a layup with 5 minutes to go. He went helped off the court and was on crutches in the locker room, but did not have his ankle taped or anything, didn't show that much swelling and said he was "okay".
Len's ankle, just like Dragic's last year, is just ripe for turning now. For any of us who've had ankle sprains, we know the ankle is weak for months afterward and the more you twist it the looser it gets. Len needs the offseason to get it right.
Remember Dragic had ankle problems all last year and was a non-factor in the season's final week because of it. These things happen. Dragic has not had any ankle issues since, and maybe Len won't either.
Keef had a heck of an all-around game: 22 points, 7 rebounds, 5 steals, 3 assists and 2 blocks. He was attacking the basket on one end and denying the rim on the other from Horford and Millsap.
But after the Suns took a 71-60 lead with 3 minutes left in the third, Keef didn't have the same impact. It didn't help that his guards - Eric Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker for the most part - had 6 turnovers in that period alone (4 by Bledsoe).
"We had a couple costly turnovers," he said of the Suns collapse. "They're a great team so they made a lot of adjustments. We just couldn't make those shots down the end. They made adjustments. We shut Kyle down for the most part, but then he made some threes."
Did he get tired, like the coach said?
"If that's what coach said, that's what it is," he said after a long pause. "I'm not going to go against his word."
I will say this, just to throw it out there.
After Archie fed Brandan Wright for the fast break dunk to take the 11-point lead with 3 minutes left in the third, the crowd jumped up and got wild. The arena was rocking as the Suns ran back down the court to play defense.
But Suns fans don't stay up for very long, and by the time Atlanta called a timeout to talk things over, just 2 or 3 seconds later, fans had already taken their seats again.
At this point, Markieff was walking right in front of me toward the Suns bench for the timeout. I had a seat on media row on the floor. He looked up at the crowd, waved his right arm a time or two (to get them to stand up) and then said "f@ck, man" as he went to the Suns bench for the timeout.
Up to that point, Keef had 18 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks in 26 minutes of playing time.
After that, he had just 4 points (on 2 of 4 shooting), 1 rebound, 1 assist and 2 steals in 12:37.
Did Keef lose some mojo because he was too worried about the fans' reaction to their big lead on the best team in the East?
Probably not. Almost certainly not. But I still thought it was interesting.
The bigger story is that the Suns and Hawks switched gears in the fourth as the Hawks won the quarter 31-14. They made 5 of 7 threes, while the Suns went 0 for 7. They shot 53.8% overall, while the Suns shot 36.4% with only 1 free throw attempt. The Suns had as many turnovers and scores (8).
It was a veteran Hawks team that turned the screws on the Suns that changed the game.
Here's Paul Millsap after their win. He kept the Hawks close all game, then keyed the turnaround. He had 23 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks for the game.
"I think our defense stepped up big time," Millsap said. "Then on the other end we made some shots and we moved the basketball and trusted each other. I think a lot of it was we figured them out a little bit. Some of it was they missed shots and a mixture of all of it to make sure you get stops."
"Again, I thought it was pretty good until we got tired," Hornacek said. "When you get tired, you get lazy on some things and mentally you don't focus and know where guys are and that is how you end up with the turnovers. They were active; they were coming after it and getting up on pick and rolls. That is when you have to be mentally sharp and tough and move it. We didn't have the energy in the fourth quarter to deal with them."
If anyone sounded incredibly frustrated after the game, it was Tucker.
"A combination of both," he said of whether it was the Suns losing it or the Hawks winning it. "I feel like they didn't do anything different than the first half. I felt like we gave it up. We settled for shots that we could have got any time on the shot clock. It's tough, man. It's tough. It's tough to even talk about now because to have control of the game for that long and give it up at the end, you can't have that."
Then he dropped more frustration.
"We just kind of went back to what we've been doing," he said, talking about the collapse. "We finally moved the ball, played together, was up in control of the game against the best team in the East for the whole game, and then we went back to our ways and you see what happens."
Tucker's defense on Korver all game, running through screens and chasing him all over the court, kept the Hawks at bay.
"That was part of the plan to try and not let him get going," coach Hornacek said of Tucker. "I thought P.J. (Tucker) did a great job on him. He had that stretch where he got a couple late in the third quarter and we were not quite as focused on him and kind of fell asleep a little bit."
Korver got going when P.J. was on the bench resting, then made a killer three late in the game to help seal it. It was great to see P.J. at the shooting guard spot doing all that chasing, but it's clear that might have contributed to him being pooped out at the end.
Tucker had a couple hustle scores in the fourth (he accounted for 4 of the Suns 14 points) but also had 2 turnovers and as -17 for the quarter.
Let's end on a high note. Goodwin was a great energy player for the Suns - I thought it was his best game in a Suns uni, considering his big role in big game. He had 9 points (2 for 2 on threes), 6 rebounds and 2 monster blocks. One of the blocks was a beautiful chase-down block on Korver to bring the fans to their feet. (if anyone's got a vine of that, please post it)
"I felt comfortable," he said. "Whenever I get minutes enough to where I can play and get a good sweat going, I always pretty much get comfortable playing and playing with these guys. I'm learning their tendencies a lot too."
Another nearly awesome play was a chase-down attempt on a Schroder fast break. But Schroder went strong and finished with the dunk, then stood over Archie after the play was over.
"It's just one of those things where I don't let anybody punk me," he said. "It was a good play, but standing over me, I can't stand for that."
But overall, that was Archie's best and most impactful game of his career, in my opinion. I'm happy for Archie and for the Suns.
That was tough ending to a really good game, Suns fans. It was really fun to be there.
If every game is like that the rest of the season, in terms of effort by the team and minutes for the young guys, I'm in.