Sometimes, the Phoenix Suns play like the scrappy, potential-playoff caliber team that GM Ryan McDonough and coach Earl Watson envisioned this summer.
Free agent signings Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa provided huge contributions to a competitive win over a playoff-caliber team, and the three top guards closed out the game while top rookie Dragan Bender made his usual great contribution on defense and ball movement without filling the stat sheet.
Coming into Wednesday night’s game, the Phoenix Suns were reeling at 5-13. Since looking quite good against the Detroit Pistons three weeks ago, the Suns had scuttled to 7 losses in 9 games, including ugly losses to the Nets, 76ers and Wolves plus two more to the equally inconsistent Nuggets.
But like that win over Detroit, the Suns came into Wednesday’s game against the Hawks with purpose and resolve. The Hawks were playing without Paul Millsap, but played hard, shot well, and tried several times to take the game back with their defense.
The Suns first separation came with Brandon Knight scoring 14 points in a 5-minute stretch (he led the Suns with 23 points for the game) to bridge the first and second quarters. Knight did everything right as the Suns second unit fueled a 14-point cushion.
The Hawks came back to close the half on a 10-0 thanks to the Suns five turnovers, and later the Hawks rallied from 10-point fourth quarter deficit to come within one point.
But the Suns held on.
“I think our guys did a great job tonight sticking with it,” coach Earl Watson said. “A lot of mental toughness. Before, it reminded me a lot of the Minnesota game where we got hit and we couldn’t respond. But, we learned from that game. A lot of mental toughness played forward. Big plays throughout the game.”
In the fourth, Leandro Barbosa broke out of a three-game slump to score 8 of the Suns 10 points in a key stretch when they were threatening to cave under the Hawks defensive pressure.
“Called LB to the coach’s huddle,” Watson recalls. “I looked at him. I said, ‘LB, I need you to lead this young group. Lead this group in the fourth quarter.’ He looked at me and said, ‘I got you.’”
“We’ve been long enough in the league to do what we did,” Barbosa said of his scoring binge. “It was good minutes for me and Jared. We did what we were supposed to, you know, bring some energy and help the young guys. They took care of it at the end of the game and we won.”
Dudley scored 17 points, including 3-of-5 three pointers for a plus-13 on the game. He also made several hustle plays, getting credited for 2 steals.
Dudley and P.J. Tucker, who scored another 17 points to make it 38 in the last two games after scoring only 36 points in the 7 games before that, both credited the Suns defense with fueling their offense the way they all drew it up this offseason.
“You have me and JD [Jared Dudley] in there,” Tucker said. “It’s a lot easier because we use the same language and we both talk a lot. All it is, is a lot of times calling out coverages on defense and talking about who it is, when we can switch, or we can [isolate] and do different things on the court.”
After the Suns had gone up by 10 in the middle of the fourth quarter, the Hawks rallied to within a point before the Suns closed it out. Tyson Chandler, Devin Booker, P.J. Tucker, Jared Dudley and Eric Bledsoe all made clutch shots down the stretch.
“We had amazing x-factor plays,” Watson said. “I don’t know if the fans understand how big of a tip that is for Tyson - that’s hard to do. He tipped it twice, and he tipped it in off the backboard. That‘s really skilled soft hands.”
“It’s a tough loss,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “A couple of rebounds late in the game and it’s a close game and we’re battling. Chandler tips one in, Tucker gets another one and then they tap it out and get a second one. You know, we just didn’t get the stops.”
Bledsoe (apparently) called bank on the decisive score to put the Suns up 106-99 until free throws and garbage time shots made the final score - 109-107 - closer than the game appeared.
The Suns are now 6-13, still mired in 13th place in the West, but it’s games like this one that show you why JD and LB were signed and why the Suns feel like their future will be good behind Bledsoe and Booker and the rookies.
Judging by the lack of comments on the game thread and recap, most of you missed the game and that’s a shame. It was a fun one for Suns fans to watch. Here’s some highlights.