PHOENIX — Alvin Gentry’s lineup purge appears to be the shift that keeps on giving.
But the new-and-improved Suns starting lineup may have settled for a one-night honeymoon. Thanks to some uninspired play against the Hornets on Black Friday night, the new-and-improved (for now, at least) second unit was required to step in and lead a crucial rally.
In what became a 111-108 overtime triumph, the Suns’ second unit lifted Phoenix from four points down going into the fourth quarter and into a six-point advantage by the time starting center Marcin Gortat returned with 4:53 left in regulation.
It should be noted the second unit finished at plus-10 in Wednesday’s trial-run victory over the Trail Blazers. So even though the bench five offers less overall speed than you’ll witness in a relay of garbage trucks, its group success may not be a fluke.
The biggest star turn in the triumph over New Orleans was taken by 17-year veteran center Jermaine O’Neal. One game after Gortat made 11 of 14 shots and scored 22 points, J.O. gave the Suns 13 points (OK, so he was a chilly 6 of 15 from the floor) and 11 rebounds; Gortat returned to a mortal form by supplying only six and five, respectively.
The Suns outscored the Hornets by a nutty 29 points while O’Neal was on the floor.
Also checking in as clutch was P.J. Tucker, whose career-high 15 points included a pair of 3-pointers. What’s the big deal? Well, Tucker — who made a grand total of two 3-pointers from behind the cozy college 3-point line his entire stay at Texas — didn’t make any while working in the Euroleague. Friday’s salvo represented two of three career NBA 3-pointers for Tucker, whose plus-minus on Friday was a measly 25 points.
The bench also received key contributions from new members Luis Scola (10 points) and Jared Dudley (9 points) along with the usual full-court pluck of point guard Sebastian Telfair.
Before bestowing total gratitude upon the reserves, however, starters Goran Dragic and Markieff Morris should take a bow.
After Hornets power forward Ryan Anderson (a career-high 34 points) went nuts from 3 in the third quarter (he made 4 of 6 in that span) and New Orleans went up by 19, Dragic took over by scoring 12 of his 20 points in the period. He also handed out eight dimes for the game, including a pass to Morris for an OT 3-pointer that was either a dagger or letter-opener, depending upon your perspective. It occurred with 49 seconds remaining, put the Suns up by five points and allowed Morris to tie his career high with 22 points. Morris, who made 9 of 12 shots, added a free throw to that number down the OT stretch and is averaging 21 points in his two games since the lineup shift.
Dragic had to fight like mad just to keep pace with New Orleans point guard Greivis Vasquez, a shifty 6-foot-6 playmaker who made 10 of 13 shots, scored 25 points and collected 14 assists.
A FAMILIAR FACE RETURNS
After starring for a college in northern California, Friday’s mystery guest was drafted by the Suns in the middle of the first round.
He didn’t exactly set the league on fire immediately but still managed to reach his playoff peak in Phoenix by helping the Suns reach the 2010 Western Conference finals. Two unspectacular seasons after that, his march toward free agency eventually provoked a trade for what (so far) seem like modest assets.
But since he never was considered the sun, moon and/or stars of this franchise, Robin Lopez’s first return to Phoenix in an enemy uniform only generated a modest crowd of 14,020 for the showdown co-starring the Suns and Hornets.
Gortat, who knows something about leaving town as a backup center and returning as the starter, offered these respectful words for his former teammate.
“The thing I like most about him is plays hard all the time,” Gortat said of Lopez, who had eight points and seven rebounds in his Phoenix reunion. “We expected him to come and really give everything he had. That’s what you want to do when playing against your former team.”
Lopez received a mixed, almost indifferent reaction during pregame introductions. It might have been a bit worse had Suns fans expected O’Neal to shine for the second consecutive game in Robin’s old role.
The reference is to Michael Beasley’s jersey number, not his production as the starting small forward in Friday’s win.
The common denominator in the Suns’ two-game winning streak: Beasley has had little to do with either of the victories. Against New Orleans, he made 1 of 6 shots, piling up two points and one rebound in a few ticks below 17 minutes.
He did make some nice passes (three assists) but did a poor job defensively of locking onto Al-Farouq Aminu and trailing him around down screens.