A few weeks ago, any talk involving the Phoenix Suns and the word “playoffs” would have seemed completely ridiculous — and maybe, to a certain extent, it still is. But the Suns have shown they possess the necessary grit and fight that is evident in postseason teams, battling back from double-digit deficits in their last four home victories, most recently in a crucial 96-94 win over the Mavericks on Thursday.
It was maybe the Suns’ best victory of the season.
After leading for three quarters the night before in Oklahoma City against a Thunder team which possesses the league’s best record, Phoenix fell apart in the fourth, and lost a game the players felt they had played well enough to win. Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said before Thursday’s game against Dallas that he wanted to be careful not to get into moral victory territory in discussing the positives against OKC.
The victory was real on this night, and was one that was earned over the defending champs.
“As a team we sort of collectively came out and willed a victory,” Grant Hill said afterward. “We probably should have won the game last night (against the Thunder), we played well and just didn’t do good job there in the fourth quarter of maintaining the lead.
“I think it showed a lot tonight that we didn’t quit, we didn’t fold, and we managed to figure out a way to get the win.”
Phoenix trailed early, thanks to Vince Carter torching his former team for 13 first-half points, which led all scorers at the break and helped get the Mavs out to a nine-point lead at intermission. Hill, who always guards the other team’s best player and held Dirk Nowitzki to just six points through two quarters, was assigned to Carter to start the second half.
Hill’s defense slowed Carter considerably in the second half, but more importantly, the Suns to a man played as hard as they have all season during a stretch that ran from late in the third quarter through more than halfway into the fourth, where Phoenix put together a monstrous 30-8 run that turned an 11-point deficit into a lead of the same margin with just over five minutes to play.
There were defensive stops that lead to transition baskets, open pull-up jumpers, or wide-open threes. There was Jared Dudley’s 12-point third quarter. There was Shannon Brown’s monster putback slam dunk that blew the roof off of the US Airways Center, and pushed the Suns lead to double digits four and a half minutes into the fourth.
There was Hakim Warrick’s inspired play off the bench, bringing energy, athleticism, and easy points at the free throw line to a second unit that has struggled to keep things stable all season long. Warrick has only gotten his chances in spurts, and hasn’t played the 17 minutes he did against Dallas in a game since the end of January, while receiving 13 DNP-CDs since.
But it wasn’t by any means a cruise to the finish line for Phoenix. Dallas is a deep and experienced team, and was able to close the gap to just two, while gaining possession with 14 seconds left after fouling Hill, who missed two free throws. After getting the ball to Nowitzki initially, the Suns had a foul to give and used it. When the Mavs inbounded the ball next, Rodrigue Beaubois was the one who got the clutch shot opportunities, first missing a floater at the rim that went in and out, then missing an 18-foot jumper with just a couple of seconds remaining that left the victory in the hands of the Suns.
Rick Carlisle was questioned as to why Beaubois was even in the game, when normally Jason Terry would be the one on the floor ready to produce should the ball not find its way into the hands of Nowitzki.
“Coach’s decision,” Carlisle said, repeating it twice more when pressed for details.
“You’re not always going to get your star players a shot at the end because they attract so much attention,” Carlisle said. “And that’s one of the reasons Roddy got so open.”
Most teams will happily take their chances with Beaubois at the end of games, given the number of capable alternatives on the Mavs’ roster. But the game wasn’t won or lost on the final possession. The Suns won it with their desire, and maybe, with their sense of urgency. Steve Nash said afterward that the team placed a significant amount of emphasis on winning this game, specifically due to the fact that Phoenix is running out of opportunities to make up the ground that it needs to in the conference standings.
“We couldn’t lose both these and stay in the playoff picture,” Nash said, referring to the game on Wednesday in Oklahoma City that was already lost. “It’s an early crunch time for us. We’ve got to keep crawling back to that eight, nine, ten spot and try to give ourselves a chance to sneak in there.”
Phoenix has won six of its last eight, with four of those wins coming against teams that the Suns are chasing in the standings. The next three are at home as well, and are also against playoff hopefuls or contenders.
The Suns aren’t ready to talk playoffs just yet. But they are playing with a desperation that seems to be working, and are going out there each night like their season is on the line. With this critical stretch of home games ahead against teams they need to outrun in the race to the postseason, it probably is.