Suns too late, Harden just in time for Rockets’ win
PHOENIX — Hey, big news from U.S. Airways Center.
Dwight Howard made a 3-pointer, his first of the season and net-shredding fifth in 48 attempts over his 11-year career.
It was unleashed to beat the shot clock three minutes into Friday’s first quarter, hit the front rim, bounced high into the air and fell through the net.
Conveniently subtract this triple from the Houston Rockets’ total, and the Suns would have been 111-110 winners, with 15 victories in their last 19 games. Their hold on the Western Conference’s eighth seed would have increased to four over the Oklahoma City Thunder, who managed to spend the evening losing (like everyone else) to the Atlanta Hawks.
OK, so Dwight (sprained ankle) was a goner less than six minutes later and the true dagger — a two-pointer — arrived as time expired as former Arizona State star James Harden (33 points, 10 assists) was into his lefty follow through after a step-back move against Phoenix’s late stab at a double team.
But we’re going with Howard’s 3 as a karma-defining moment of this 113-111 result, because when someone with the velvety touch of a runaway jackhammer knocks one in early to beat the shot clock, it serves as a truly rotten omen.
Eventually losing on an off-the-dribble move by Harden isn’t exactly mind-blowing.
And anyone paying attention to the Suns must be a bit weary of watching this buzzer-beating epidemic.
"Well, it should’ve never got to that point," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said.
For the record, Hornacek hadn’t forgotten that his team uncorked a 23-9 run to tie the game at 111 after falling behind, 102-86, with only 6:11 remaining.
His "never got to that point" disgust was in reference to the Suns’ sluggish start, resulting in 32 Houston points — on 54.2-percent shooting — during the opening quarter.
"We gave up so many easy things that I would say that for the first eight minutes of the game, everything we went over on our scouting report this morning, on the board before the game, the guys did none of it," Hornacek said of his team’s untimely return to opening a game in zombie mode.
Sure, the Suns were hauling the swagger of 14 wins in 18 games into the fifth game of their unprecedented, eight-game home stand. But the first three dates were victories over the reconnoitering Cleveland Cavaliers, the wounded Minnesota Timberwolves and Woe-time Los Angeles Lakers. Game four co-starred the LaMarcus Aldridge-free Portland Trail Blazers.
So, with the Rockets next up in a string of playmates that includes (in order) the L.A. Clippers, Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls, Golden State Warriors (road), Memphis Grizzlies (back home) and Blazers (road), the impropriety of zombie mode can be extremely galling for any coach.
"I don’t know what we were doing that first eight minutes," Hornacek said. "It’s a sign that you’re not ready to play and you’re not focused.
"Yeah, they made a great comeback, but it should’ve never got to that point. If we would have come out from the start of the game, doing things that we were supposed to do, we would’ve have jumped in the lead and put a lot of pressure on them. Instead, we let them have the lead most of the game."
Along with that four-game winning streak, the Suns’ technical-foul-avoidance streak ended at five. Please note that after going hi-tech late during a loss to the Spurs in San Antonio, Hornacek instituted a playing-time embargo on Phoenix players who are dinged.
P.J. Tucker’s challenge of guarding Harden was interrupted after the first play of the second half. Teammate Markieff Morris had just scored two of his 21 points when Tucker went face to beard with the Rockets star, picking up his T.
Tucker was benched, but he returned in the fourth quarter, because his transgression had nothing to do with bickering at a game official.
"I went and talked to the referee," Hornacek clarified, "and said, ‘What did he say to you?’ He goes, ‘Oh, he didn’t say anything. He just went in the guy’s face. He went in James Harden’s face.’"
Goran Dragic, whose appearance against any team lacking an elite point guard is a presumed trade or free-agency showcase, was zapped at 6:19 of the third quarter and — per Hornacek’s decree — sat for the rest of the game.
Dragic came up empty when Rocket guard Patrick Beverley hustled back to stop a breakaway layup and raked the ball off Dragic’s leg. The ball went out of bounds and no foul was assessed against Beverley.
"Goran went and argued and got the technical," Hornacek said. "We told these guys if they get a technical, they’re going to be out of the game the rest of the game for arguing with the refs, so that’s what that was."
Before leaving, The Dragon did little to fire the imaginations of Rockets fans watching at home on TV and rooting for his eventual return to Texas. In 18:25, Dragic scored two points on 1-of-5 shooting.
Backcourt running mate Eric Bledsoe had another sweet stat line, however, scoring 25 points (8 of 14 from the field), collecting eight rebounds and handing out nine dimes.
The Morris twins combined for 18 in that fourth-quarter run, but Phoenix had some trouble translating some timeout strategy into on-court execution.
For example, with 26 seconds remaining and the Rockets leading by a point and inbounding at mid-court, Harden hustled over to catch the in-bound pass and Tucker was whistled for fouling him.
Tucker, by the way, was part of a two-man blitz that had Harden pinned at the sideline, mid-court-line intersection, when the foul was called.
"No, we were trying to get one trap," Hornacek said when asked if the strategy had called for an immediate foul. "He (Tucker) swiped down. He (referee) said he hit him on the arm. I don’t know if he did or not. Sometimes these guys anticipate that we’re just fouling. We wanted to get one trap, see if we can get the ball out of Harden’s hands first of all and see if we can get a turnover right there."
Harden made both free throws, but Markieff Morris answered with a game-tying, three-point play, leaving the Rockets with the ball and 16 seconds on the clock.
As Harden prepared his dribble attack against Tucker, the Suns sent Isaiah Thomas for a late double team that arrived just as the Rockets’ star was going into step-back mode.
"Usually, I go at eight or nine seconds," Harden said, "but I waited until three or four seconds. Hey, man … the ball goes in or it doesn’t. Fortunately, I made the basket. Tie game, on the road, you live for those moments."