CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Suns coach Jeff Hornacek would have preferred to coast to the finish Friday night. His young players seemed determined not to make it that easy on him.
The Suns nearly squandered a 17-point lead in the final four minutes before escaping with a 98-91 victory over the Bobcats. Charlotte got within five of Phoenix in the final minute but couldn’t get over the hump.
“I’m not sure what we were doing out there for a while, but we’ll take it,” Hornacek said with a sense of relief in his voice. “We lost the last four games, so we’ll take any win, regardless of how it looks.”
Channing Frye scored a season-high 20 points and P.J. Tucker was perfect from the field as the Suns beat the Bobcats for the fourth consecutive time. Tucker scored 17 points on 6-of-6 shooting. He drained three 3-pointers, and his only miss of the night came on a late free throw.
Goran Dragic added 14 points and eight assists two nights after scoring 31 in a loss to Sacramento. Gerald Green chipped in with 14 points and Markieff Morris had 11 points and nine rebounds off the bench.
“Man, I’ll take a win, but that was pretty sketchy at the end,” Frye said of the series of missed shots and turnovers in the final four minutes. “We’re young and still trying to figure out (how to close games), but winning is winning. I’ll take that any day of the week.”
Gerald Henderson scored 17 points and Kemba Walker had 16 to lead the Bobcats, who have lost three of four.
Al Jefferson returned to the starting lineup and had nine points and six rebounds after missing the previous four games with an ankle injury.
The Suns led 74-63 early in the fourth quarter when they went on a 10-0 run, with Green knocking down a baseline jumper and Frye and Marcus Morris connecting on 3-pointers to push the lead to 21. That brought boos from the home crowd in Charlotte for the first time under new coach Steve Clifford with 9 minutes left in the game.
“It was like we were a step slower and we made some mental mistakes and turned the ball over,” Jefferson said. “We just didn’t have it tonight.”
Still, the Bobcats showed they’re starting to get used to playing with Jefferson as a low-post presence, something Clifford has said would take some time given how little Jefferson played in the preseason due to ankle issues.
On one possession, Henderson fed Jefferson in the low post, got the ball back and then returned it to Jefferson, who scored on a layup while drawing a foul.
“We have to learn to play off Al,” Clifford said. “They played small and when teams play like that we need to be able to pound them. We have to be able to get him the ball. Again, that’s not an easy thing. Post-up basketball, as I’ve said before, is the hardest thing to get good at.”
Said Jefferson: “I think it’s just a matter of game reps. (But) it’s not something I’m panicking about.”
The Suns jumped out to a 55-44 lead in the first half behind 11 points from Frye. Miles Plumlee was strong on the boards early for the Suns and finished with 11 rebounds.
Walker, who excited Bobcats fans Wednesday night with 31 points against Brooklyn, scored just three points on 1-of-3 shooting in the first half while Charlotte didn’t make a 3-pointer.
The Suns continue their road trip with stops in Orlando and Miami.
“We needed a win,” Tucker said. “It’s been a tough four games for us. We’re on the road now and needed to get a win. It got a little crazy at the end out here, but we finished and got the win.”
Frye said it helped that the Suns didn’t put pressure on themselves for a change.
“We’re just having fun out there,” he said. “I think I was more relaxed today. When you start losing everything you start to get real tight, so we can’t be like that. We just have to get out there and have fun.”
NOTES: With Jefferson back in the lineup, Bobcats center Bismack Biyombo didn’t play after averaging more than 20 minutes over the previous four games. … Charlotte finished 3 of 14 from 3-point range, with all the makes coming in the fourth quarter. … Dragic has scored in double figures in six straight games.