The Phoenix Suns played a spirited, but ultimately not-good-enough, game against the visiting Miami Heat, and lost to solid performances by Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and former Suns Goran Dragic, Gerald Green and (to a lesser extent) Amare Stoudemire.
For the Heat, it was an emotional win.
Dragic was a consummate pro when he was in town this week. I've always been a big fan of him as a person, even though I really didn't like how he forced his way to the Heat. It felt good that he recognized me in the hallways of the arena and gave me a big hello.
After the game, he made a great comment to the fans.
"I would like to thank everybody who was cheering for me and even those who were booing," he said. "That's part of the game and it feels awesome when you're on the court and you can see the fans are getting involved and they are cheering for you or booing you."
Dragic got mostly cheers, especially in the player introductions, but some boos were heard as well. After the game, he admitted how important the same was for he and Gerald.
"You always want to play good against your ex team," he said. "It's an emotional game, especially for me and Gerald and I'm happy that we got the win."
The entire Heat team came to play, wanting to win the game for the former Suns. Dwyane Wade looked especially spry all game long - at his best, and that's a really really high bar. He started the game with a block of Devin Booker's jumper, and ended it with an array of moves in the paint to score dagger shots to seal the win.
"Obviously Goran and Gerald really wanted it and they played very well," Wade said. "We knew they were going to be aggressive and it was our job to allow them to but also have their back as well. We were able to accomplish that."
But it's not like the game was all about Goran and Gerald tearing into the Suns. This was a highly entertaining game where both sides where dialed in, and the Heat's overall higher talent level - including a vintage MVP-caliber Wade - won out.
"I was just trying to do what I can when I can, how I can," Wade said. "So many guys were aggressive tonight and I just waited for my opportunities to be aggressive and it worked out for us. I got a couple of things to go and I was focused on getting into the paint as of late and I got the pull up to go."
Here's a Dragic vid for those who want to hear. I only caught the end of this interview time. You don't want to hear Heat reporters questions anyway.
"That's nothing new," Goran said of Green's mean-mugging on every shot he made. "When we played together here (in Phoenix) he did the same thing. It's funny. That extra juice pumps you up."
Then he reflected on his own game compared to Gerald's. "Sometimes you just need to stay cool a little bit," he said with a smile. That's tough for Gerald.
Green had a slow start in the stat sheet, but he was positively humming like a power generator all game long and eventually his energy turned into threes and dunks. He took vintage Gerald shots all game long, and depending on which side of the court he scored on he either stared down the Suns bench or the Suns owner all second half on every make.
"The guys wanted to do it for them," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said post game. "And those are nice moments in an NBA season when it's genuine and sincere. We knew how important it would be for those guys and they gave us good minutes.
"Goran was extremely aggressive, Gerald gave us that great spark off the bench and even Amar'e's minutes were rock solid. It was a good win. We had to show some character when we got up and got down and then even again in
Green had 21 points (on 7-for-11 shooting) and THAT Gerald was the Gerald any coach would want to give big minutes. That was the 2013-14 best-of-Gerald Gerald that we all miss. Unfortunately, that wasn't the Gerald that played in 2014-15, regardless of what you think about what happened to his playing time.
Amare is clearly not the same player any more. He can't move well, and often just allows his opponent to score on him.
Yet when Markieff Morris tried to go up for a two-handed dunk in the first half, it was Amare that met him at the top and dunk-blocked him so hard the ball bounced once off the court and out of bounds twenty five feet away. Morris didn't play much after that.
There's Amare's memory to take with him. Otherwise, this wasn't really any kind of Amare revenge game. He's been gone six years and played here much healthier a half-dozen times by now. But he still thinks of Phoenix as home and clearly has nothing but love for Phoenix, the arena and the fans.
Okay, enough about the Heat!
The Phoenix Suns played the game hard, and despite their shortcomings on offense and defense they acquitted themselves once again against a very good team. Like the Cavaliers and Thunder last week, the Suns held strong and even had a lead in the second half before the other team closed it out.
Coach Hornacek was as animated on the post game presser as I've seen in a while. He was fired up about the game, and didn't take this as a moral victory or "good loss" at all.
He instead pointed out all the things the team did wrong to let the Heat win despite their efforts. Lazy closeouts, poor rotations, all led to the Heat getting key big shots from Chris Bosh and Dragic and Green on the three-point line that helped knock the Suns out.
"I think, early on, we were not as aggressive as we needed to be," Hornacek said. "The close-outs were a little short. Goran (Dragic) got two threes to start the game. You've got to get out to the guy. He may not be shooting the ball percentage-wise well this year, but if the guy lines it up he's on a court he's played hundreds of games on, he's probably going to shoot it better there."
Hornacek didn't stop there.
"I go back to knowing personnel and we talk about certain guys, and that's where on the fly, you've got to know your ranking of shooters out there. Who's going to shoot the ball? Who are their weaker shooter out there and you've got to try and force it to those guys who are the weaker shooters. I think there were a couple of plays that we gave up a layup or didn't really help out when the guy was kind of hugging a non-shooter. "
He's preaching the Suns problems all year long. That's what happens when you're playing the league's youngest players, youngest win combination and missing your best overall player and defender. That's what we're going to see this season, just like the last few.
Some people say Hornacek is being outcoached, but look at the difference in talent on a team like the Heat and the Suns. Coach Spoelstra has always had MVP-player Dwyane Wade - a wonderful offensive AND defensive player. He's also had 10-time All-Star Chris Bosh. He's got really good, long defenders in Luol Deng and rookie Justice Winslow. He's got a former third-team All-NBA player. Simply, Spoelstra has more to work with.
But I digress. Back to the game.
This is Booker's world and we're just living in it. Booker was star-struck by Dwyane Wade and spent the entire game trying to hold his own defensively while being aggressive offensively.
The game started with Wade blocking Booker's first jumper.
"That's Dwyane Wade," Booker said with a smile. "I was being slow with my shot. That's why he's one of the best."
Booker had a rough first half, making only 1 of 5 shots. But he got supernova hot for about two minutes in the third when he scored 11 points on 4 Suns possessions. Overall, Booker scored 16 points, grabbed 6 rebounds and committed two hard fouls to stop big transition dunks by Green and Wade.
Most notably, he scored 7 points on just two shots on consecutive possessions. First he got fouled on a fast break layup, then on a transition three pointer.
I've never seen a Suns player score 7 points on two shots before, and I'm not sure it's very common in the NBA at all. But when I asked Booker about that, he just shrugged and said he did that a lot in high school. At first I was like 'but that was forever ago' until I realized that's less than two years ago for young Book.
Here's the interview.
Coach Hornacek lit up like a Christmas tree when he got to talk about Booker after the game.
"He was a little up-and-down tonight. But that's going to happen. He's going to have stretches where he's really good," Hornacek said. "He's playing some of the best guys in the world and Dwyane Wade, certainly this year, is playing like the Dwyane Wade we all know. He's been a great player for many years.
"It's a tough matchup for him (Booker), but he's going to run into a lot of those tough matchups. He'll have stretches where he plays well and others where he might struggle a little bit. With Devin, we kept saying that you got to play with that cockiness. He had a little stretch there and he let it out."
Starting point guard Brandon Knight played aggressive all night and scored 26 points along with 4 assists, but it was Archie Goodwin's turn as Knight's backup that was the highlight of the night for the bench unit.
Archie scored 9 solid points, dished 4 assists and grabbed 4 rebounds. Arguably his best game of the season, and possibly the most under-control game of his career. He drove to the rim with patience and only once did he put his head down and try to bull through three defenders and get blocked.
Goodwin should feel good after that, and if he can keep up the solid, smart play he might be a player after all. Consistency is Archie's biggest nemesis.
I don't know who took Tyson Chandler's body and sucked out all the hops, but man does he look old. The player who was 5th in the league in rebounds and 2nd in dunk last year at age 32 suddenly looks like warmed-over body just six months later.
When he gets up for a lob finish, it's like you can't try it again for at least 10 minutes while he recharges. A few times, Knight threw him a lob only to have Chandler not even jump. Once, Chandler jumped but couldn't get high enough off the ground to finish the dunk. He tried to flip it in, to no avail. There were at least two Knight passes that could have been assists but instead turned into TOs off those lob attempts as he sucked the defense to him.
In the end, both teams went small with the Heat playing Bosh at center while the Suns played either Teletovic or Leuer at times. The Suns best stretch came with Bosh out while Teletovic played the stretch-five role to a T with a pair of dagger threes to give the Suns a lead early in the fourth.
After taking turns threatening double-doubles from the center position in the season's opening weeks, both Chandler and Len look like they need to be force-fed to get anything going lately. Len's been battling confidence and a hand injury, and Chandler is apparently losing his battle against his body. I hope the season turns around for both of them.
Final, final word
This game looked a lot like typical Suns home losses for the past decade, even back to the Nash days. Play hard, take a lead against a really good team, then falter down the stretch while the other's team's MVP makes all the best shots.
The way Wade was playing last night, he wasn't going to be denied by anybody. He was hitting turn-around fallaway jumpers, getting to the rim, and playing dogged defense all night. The Heat rotated big defenders onto Knight all game, with Deng, Winslow, Wade and Bosh all seeing time there. Their length made it hard for Knight to do anything, but he still scored 26 points.
Wade was Wade. And that's ultimately what carried the Heat to the win.