PHOENIX — The team occupying 12th place in the NBA’s Western Conference celebrated Fiesta Night by modeling its orange “Los Suns” jerseys on national TV.
In its early stages, this late-night party was being crashed by Los Ex-Suns, who were attempting to steer their former team toward the brink of adios in the 2012 playoff derby. But a second-half uprising — including an actual fourth-quarter heat check by Sebastian Telfair and an extended burn for Hakim Warrick — enabled the team from Phoenix to knock off the defending champion Dallas Mavericks 96-94 Thursday night at US. Airways Center.
The victory was the Suns’ sixth in the last eight games, and it was their first against the Mavs in nine meetings.
Article continues below ...
“They’re a good enough team that you still have to play really well to beat ’em,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said of the now-23-18 Mavericks.
Well, at least for a half. At intermission, Dallas held a 53-44 advantage, with more than half of those points provided by a trio of former Suns named Jason Kidd (9), Shawn Marion (5) and Vince Carter (13). Carter, whose glory run in Phoenix spanned most of last season, became a Los Ex-Sun by failing to demonstrate enough reasons for the Suns to cough up a full $18 million to keep him this season.
Fortunately for the Suns, his homecoming coronation pretty much ended during the halftime show.
Anyway, this also was the eighth date for the Suns in a 14-game stretch that started Feb. 19, ends March 18 and will feature 12 hope-generating home games. But don’t think of it as a homestand … it’s much more like a last stand.
Now sitting at 18-21, Phoenix entered this run at 13-19 and 13th in the conference. Eight of those dozen home games are to be contested against teams ahead of them in the standings. So are the two road games.
So this seems like a pretty swell time for the Suns — if they’re truly interested in playing past April and annoying those who prefer watching them slouch toward a higher draft pick — to make a move. It should be noted that only eight of the 21 games occurring after March 18 will be contested in Phoenix.
Entering Fiesta Night a reasonable two games out of the eighth seed in the ol’ loss column, the Suns spent the first half looking very much like the blindfolded kid swinging a stick at the pinata. When the Mavs weren’t busy creating enough open looks to make 52 percent of their field-goal attempts, Phoenix was staggering through a disappointing 44.7 percent shooting performance on the other end.
Much of this disappointment was traced to the Suns’ inability to take advantage of Dallas switching on every pick-and-roll action. Suns center Marcin Gortat, whose PNR work with Steve Nash has been closing in on Fred-and-Ginger territory, was unable to dominate against the smaller, post-switch defenders in the post. Gortat, who piled up a career-high 28 points Wednesday in Oklahoma City when the Thunder attempted to play straight up against the high-ball-screen tactic through three quarters, was only 4 of 11 at halftime Thursday.
With Dallas using the 6-foot-7 Marion to defend Nash, switching didn’t exactly leave Gortat with a huge advantage. But the Mavs had Kidd guarding Grant Hill, so the Suns took a couple of turns using Gortat to screen for their small forward, giving The Polish Hammer a greater edge after the switch. But that didn’t pan out, either.
Robin Lopez fared much better during his second-quarter stint, abusing the little guys for two buckets in three shots from deep. And when he simply posted up Dallas backup center Sean Williams, Lopez dropped that sweeping, left-handed hook.
The Dallas switching continued throughout the second half, but the Phoenix defense provided enough stops and early offense to find easier shot opportunities. The Suns, who held their three previous US Airways guests to lower than 40 percent shooting, limited Dallas to 34.9 percent in the last two quarters.
“We got the pace of the game up where we really wanted it,” Gentry said. “Once again, we came up with stops, which is really important to run off misses as opposed to taking the ball and running off makes. We had the game up at the tempo where we wanted it, and we were able to score.”
Suns guard Jared Dudley, the guy who took Carter’s spot in the starting lineup last spring, played faster-tempo benefactor, using secondary-break opportunities to knock in 12 of his team-high 18 points in the third quarter. Phoenix outscored Dallas 34-23 in the third and held a 78-76 lead going into the fourth.
With Telfair bagging five points early in the fourth quarter, the Suns achieved separation that reached double digits at 90-80 when Shannon Brown slammed the rebound of a Channing Frye miss with 7:33 to play.
“The second unit did an outstanding job,” Gentry said. “My hat’s off to Sebastian, who played well. Robin (Lopez) did a really good job for us posting up there. Shannon Brown came in and did well.”