SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Phoenix Suns center Marcin Gortat had the game ball tucked under his jersey, and before heading into the locker room to celebrate, he approached an official at the scorer’s table.
“I’m keeping the ball, so fine me for it, or send me a bill,” Gortat said with a wry smile.
Luis Scola scored 21 points and the Suns won their first game under new coach Lindsey Hunter, who was presented the game ball after a 106-96 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night.
The Suns, tied with New Orleans for the worst record in the Western Conference at 14-28, outplayed the Kings in the second half, quieting a Sacramento crowd that was watching the Kings for the first time since the announced sale of the team to a group of Seattle businessmen.
It’s been a tumultuous week for the Suns, too. They parted ways with coach Alvin Gentry last Friday following a stretch of seven losses in eight games.
In a surprise move, the Suns named Hunter — formerly the team’s player development director — as their interim head coach for the remaining 41 games this season. Hunter spent 17 seasons as a player in the NBA before retiring in 2010, winning NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers and Detroit Pistons.
“That was really exciting,” said Hunter, who appeared to rely heavily on his assistant coaches throughout the game. “I’m more excited for the guys than I am anything else. They’ve worked so hard for me these past couple of days. This is a long, long journey and this is just the beginning for all of us.”
Unhappy with the hiring of Hunter, assistant coach Dan Majerle departed and Elston Turner may be next to go. The team’s lead assistant, Turner was not at Wednesday’s game and reportedly will meet with Suns general manager Lance Blanks on Thursday regarding his future with the team.
“It’s been painful,” Scola said about the coaching changes. “You don’t want it to happen. It’s not the coach’s fault, it’s everyone’s fault. We couldn’t do it with Alvin, but we’re going to try to make this coach successful.”
The Suns were successful in Hunter’s debut, thanks in large part to Michael Beasley. Playing in a reserve role, Beasley had 13 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter as the Suns outscored Sacramento 32-19.
“We defended. And Michael Beasley was tremendous in the fourth quarter,” Gortat said. “He took the game over by himself. He was unstoppable and gave us three straight possessions where he scored. He definitely helped us win.”
The Suns shot nearly 48 percent and outscored the Kings 57-39 in the second half. Gortat, Goran Dragic and Shannon Brown scored 12 apiece for Phoenix, which has won two straight road games but is 4-17 away from home.
“They just made some good switches and changes at halftime,” said Kings forward James Johnson, who had 14 points. “It worked on us. And Michael Beasley came in and we couldn’t stop him during that run.”
Tyreke Evans scored 16 points and DeMarcus Cousins had 15 points and 15 rebounds for the Kings, who have dropped two straight and three of four. Cousins, who committed six of Sacramento’s season-high 25 turnovers, was called for his 10th technical foul in the fourth quarter for delay of game.
Rookie forward Thomas Robinson had 12 points and a season-high 14 rebounds off the bench for the Kings, who outrebounded Phoenix 49-30.
“A very disappointing loss for our basketball team — 25 turnovers, 27 points we gave on those turnovers, and a lot of missed free throws (15 of 24),” Kings coach Keith Smart said. “It’s unfortunate for our team to lose this game. Don’t take anything away from Phoenix, they made plays when they had to.”
This was the first game in Sacramento since the Maloofs, owners of the Kings, reached a deal to sell controlling interest of the team to a group led by investor Chris Hansen, who will file for relocation to move the franchise to Seattle next season. That move will require NBA approval.
On Tuesday, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson identified 20 local investors who committed $1 million each in a bid to purchase the Kings. Johnson, who attended the game and sat in a courtside seat, said he plans to announce several major investors later this week in his ongoing effort to keep the team in Sacramento.
“It’s just business, but nobody really knows what’s going on,” Evans said. “So we’ve just got to keep playing and worry about the season. It’s not really a distraction. My job is basketball. It’s not where we are moving to.”
The Suns used a 15-1 run in the fourth quarter to grab control of the game. Phoenix closed the spurt with six straight points, taking a 96-85 lead with 4:29 remaining. A three-point play by Scola, who had nine fourth-quarter points, gave Phoenix a 13-point cushion with just under a minute left.
Beasley, who entered the game shooting just under 37 percent, made eight of 15 shots, hit his only 3-point attempt and had six rebounds in 21 minutes.
“Beasley is still a proven player in our league,” Smart said. “Obviously he played well. He was able to make some big plays down the stretch.”
Despite uncertainty about the team leaving town, the 12,741 Sacramento fans in attendance were surprisingly subdued, treating it like a routine midseason game.
There were multiple signs displayed in support of the team, however, and one courtside fan yelled, “KJ (Kevin Johnson) you’re the man” several times. A small group of fans also chanted “Stay in Sac.”
“Coaches and for the most part players don’t get caught up in everything that goes on off the floor,” Smart said before the game. “They focus on practices and deal with the guys they work with. You are not paying attention to what your team is doing if you are focusing on the outside. We try to focus on the game.”
The Suns played well in the third quarter and continued that trend in the fourth. Scola made a pair of jumpers and Beasley added a dunk and later followed with a jumper at the midway point in the quarter, giving Phoenix a 92-85 lead.
Markieff Morris scored eight points in the third quarter when the Suns closed the gap, outscoring the Kings 25-20 and pulling to 77-74 entering the fourth.
James Johnson hit all five shots in the second quarter when he scored 11 points, helping the Kings take a 57-49 lead into halftime. NOTES: Cousins connected on a 3-pointer with 1 second left in the first quarter. … Jermaine O’Neal, the Suns’ co-captain, did not practice or travel with the team Tuesday due to a medical issue. He reportedly had a verbal confrontation with Blanks earlier in the week. … Kings reserve guard Jimmer Fredette entered in the second quarter after not playing in the two previous games. He had two points in just under 4 minutes of playing time. … Former Suns scout Dan Panaggio returned to the team as a new assistant coach, joining Noel Gillespie and Igor Kokoskov, who replaced Turner as lead assistant.