Empty Nets: Suns second-half rally starts with ‘D’
PHOENIX — The rope-a-dope basketball on display Wednesday night — at the defense end, in particular — was unintentional. But it was familiar.
Although visual evidence of staged, first-half mediocrity seems inconclusive, we offer bona fide proof, via a little tactical philosophy presented by Suns coach Jeff Hornacek.
"If you play tough defense," Hornacek said before his team achieved its fifth victory in eight games by knocking off the Brooklyn Nets at US Airways Center, "at some point in the game, you’re going to get hot."
Well, the Suns — thanks to another thrill ride from the nuclear-sub backcourt of Gerald Green and Isaiah Thomas — eventually heated up and scored 63 points in the final two quarters of a 112-104 victory.
But their defense didn’t exactly prevent the Nets (4-3) from getting cozy in the opening half. Another round of lack of focus on rotations joined forces with meager resistance near the rim, and it enabled Brooklyn to shoot its way to a 19-point, second-quarter advantage. In a stunning result of marksmanship and/or defensive disengagement, the Nets sank 12 of 17 field goal attempts in each of the first two periods.
That’s a terrifying 70.6 percent. Another cold-sweats number is the 39.5, which represents the Suns’ shooting percentage during that same time frame.
Unfortunately for Brooklyn, it left for intermission with a lead of 14 points that — based on the Suns’ ignition capacity — seemed extremely flammable.
Credit 11 Nets turnovers and an 18-point second quarter from Green as explanations for why the Suns were within flame-throwing distance with two quarters to play.
"Yeah, Gerald Green can get shots off," Hornacek, in one of those the-sky-is-up revelations, reminded us after the game. "Some of them aren’t the greatest shots, but he can get rollin’."
When it was over, Green had rolled around and shot over the Brooklyn defense for a game-high 28 points. In addition to making 11 of 12 free throws, he found enough clean looks to make a respectable 7 of his 15 field goal attempts.
"It’s easy when you got guys penetrating," Green said. "Everybody helping, everybody sucked in and I’m wide open for the 3. So they just make the game a lot easier for me."
Hornacek’s halftime alteration was limited to quick video study and a reminder that a little defense can go a long way.
"Pretty much it was we showed them the clips and said just like the other night, ‘We have a chance to if we can take it up a notch defensively in the second half, we’ll have a chance to win the game,’" Hornacek said. "Again, it’s focus in defensively — being alert, helping each other out, not worrying about if your man’s going to score. If you have to rotate on someone to help somebody out, then do it, and the next guy will rotate over.
"Again, guys got after it. Sometimes we just allow teams to run their offense. If you get up on guys, guys are not comfortable, and it makes them do something different. It’s helpful."
Helpful on this occasion meant limiting Brooklyn to 11 made field goals in 40 attempts — a certifiably-icy 27.5 percent.
And, as a companion to the suddenly toughened defense, the Suns hiked the temperature of their own accuracy.
Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic combined to make all six of their field goals in the third quarter, helping Phoenix cash in on the defensive upgrade. With Alex Len converting a turnaround jumper from the free-throw line, the Suns even took the lead at 78-77 with 51.9 remaining in the third.
Brooklyn finished the quarter up by five, however, due to a resumption of sloppy Suns ball handling. Thomas had two turnovers in that stretch after replacing Bledsoe, who coughed up four of a game-high seven turnovers in his only run of the second half.
In another rewind of Phoenix’s late-game, tag-team knockout punch, Thomas helped close the fourth quarter with Green, scoring 12 of his 21 points over the last 12 minutes. The team’s leading scorer, Thomas danced through Brooklyn’s defense on his way to 8 free-throw-line visits (he made all 8 attempts).
Green had 10 points in the final stanza, making 3 of 5 from the field and all 8 of his shots from the free throw line.
In the fourth quarters of the last two games, Green (26) and Thomas (27) have combined to outscore the opposition 53-36; the Suns’ overall differential across both fourth quarters is 70-36.
Against Brooklyn, Phoenix’s backcourt combined for 78 of the 112 points. Dragic had 18 and six assists. Bledsoe had 11 — on 4-of-5 shooting — but didn’t play in the final 14 minutes.
Hornacek said Bledsoe’s down time had nothing to do with those four third-quarter turnovers and everything to do with the guys who were convincingly outplaying the Nets.
"Again, you guys are going to ask me about someone every game," Hornacek, the man presiding over the battle for minutes, said. "We just kept it that way."
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