The Suns and the Rockets are two teams on the outside looking in at the playoff picture in the Western Conference, but each is on the rise. Houston had won seven of eight, and Phoenix had won five of seven coming into Tuesday night’s head-to-head matchup. The game’s result, an exciting 113-110 home win for the Suns, may very well end up having a direct impact on the teams’ playoff chances as we head into the final five weeks of the season.
But in this meeting, there was something else at stake between the two clubs, however trivial at this point: bragging rights over who may have gotten the better end of the deadline-day deal that saw Goran Dragic and a protected 2011 first round draft pick head to Houston in exchange for Aaron Brooks.
While neither had a material impact on this particular contest, you have to believe that — at this early stage — the Rockets are a bit happier on their end than the Suns.
Dragic and Brooks combined to go 0 for 10 from the field in this one, but the difference in the on-court presence and demeanor between the two was more than noticeable — it was obvious.
Dragic played with aggression and purpose, darting to his spots on the floor, pressing up on defense, and zipping passes to his new teammates with precision. Brooks, meanwhile, over-dribbled aimlessly on offense, forced passes into traffic which resulted in turnovers, and didn’t appear to know where or when the cuts from his teammates would be coming from just yet.
Simply put, Brooks looked largely lost out there in his limited minutes on the floor. Along with the lack of familiarity with his new surroundings, it’s possible that nerves may have played a part in Brooks’ particularly poor performance.
“Jittery, nervous,” Brooks said, when asked to describe his feelings taking the floor in his home debut with his new team. “It was one of my worst games but I’m happy, thrilled we got the win — that’s most important. The game was so valuable, and we got it done.”
Brooks hasn’t been disastrous until this outing, and has shot the ball well in his first five games with Phoenix, making 16 of his 29 attempts. But some of those buckets came when the games had already been decided, and he’s nowhere near a fit yet for this team, which Suns coach Alvin Gentry said is something that he expects to take some time.
“I think he’s still learning,” Gentry said. “I think he’s a little bit too unselfish right now, because we need for him to be a scorer. At this stage I think he just feels like he needs to try to fit in first. I don’t think he understands the makeup of this team, where it’s such an unselfish team — they don’t really care. If he comes in and has 20 good shots and he takes them, no one’s going to say anything. But I think just like (former Sun Jason Richardson) had to, and just like (Channing Frye) had to, I think it takes time to understand that — the culture of this team, and the unselfishness of this team.”
Brooks admitted afterward that might have something to do with him taking longer than expected to adjust.
“Coming (to the team) in the middle of the season, you don’t really want to step on anybody’s toes,” Brooks said. “You know, it’s the beginning, and I’m not really concerned about that, honestly. I mean, I can play basketball, it’s just about getting out there, feeling comfortable, and doing my thing. I’m not worried too much about it.”
As Brooks mentioned, the win was a valuable one because it assures the Suns, who now sit just a game and a half out of the eighth playoff spot behind the Memphis Grizzlies, a clinching of the season series over the Rockets, having won the first two contests with just one meeting remaining.
A career high of 32 points from Hakim Warrick to go along with another 32 from Vince Carter powered the Suns on this night, and Brooks’ contributions as a reserve weren’t needed in order for Phoenix to secure the victory. Despite his rough outing, that’s something Brooks obviously sees as a positive.
“Maybe I was a little reluctant today,” Brooks said. “But I figure if I played my worst today and we still got the win, it can only go up from there.”
The Suns are hoping the same.