PHOENIX — A game after the Phoenix Suns lost defensive focus while their offense went stagnant in a loss to the Blazers, a matchup against the young Timberwolves provided them an opportunity to rekindle their defensive effort.
Phoenix built a six-point halftime lead into an 85-66 advantage heading into the fourth quarter and with that buffer won 108-101 Sunday afternoon.
Perhaps as a hangover from last game, the halfcourt offense had its issues early on. The hangover, however, didn’t stay with Brandon Knight, who led Phoenix with 25 points after going 0-for-12 from the floor Friday.
Eventually, the Suns turned to aggressive defense and separated.
Phoenix finished with 43 points off 25 T-Wolves turnovers — 16 of those points and nine of those turnovers came in the third quarter — and got 10 transition points in the third quarter alone.
“We really wanted to step up our defensive pressure,” Suns forward Jon Leuer said. “We felt like they were getting into their offense too easy. We did that. We were able to bother them, deflect some passes and cause some turnovers that led to some easy baskets. That was the difference in the game.”
Of course, Phoenix would rather have played strong defense and not have to rely on a 21-point lead late in the third quarter that nearly evaporated.
Guard Zach LaVine’s three-pointer with less than a minute left cut the Suns lead to 104-99 as Minnesota threatened several times in the fourth quarter.
“We stepped up defensively. I think there was a stretch there … The buckets they had I think were ones when we took an ill-advised shot or had a turnover. We got to try to stretch that period of time out, instead of a six-minute period of great defense,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said.
– Starting center Alex Len junked up the game in a good way for Phoenix. With Tyson Chandler healthy enough to return from a hamstring injury, Len again got the start and drew four fouls in the first quarter, two on first overall pick Karl Anthony Towns. The Suns center scored on a dunk and hit all eight of his free throws (setting a career high for free throws made in a game) for 10 points as Phoenix trailed 27-25 after 12 minutes. He would finish with 18 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
– Len and Chandler helped hold the rookie Towns, the first overall pick, to eight points and six rebounds, well below his averages of 15 points and nine boards a game.
– Knight recovered from his bad shooting performance on Friday night. His second make, a straightaway three-pointer about five feet beyond the three-point arc, showed he mentally had put those struggles behind him. Two late threes by Knight twice helped the Suns regain a double-digit lead heading into the final three minutes. “The great players in this league are going to bounce back. He had a rough one the other night, came back strong,” Hornacek said.
– A third-quarter run of transition buckets and dunks put Phoenix ahead 75-62 with four minutes to go in the period. T-Wolves turnovers didn’t help their cause, and one transition opportunity saw Knight, from the right wing, find a streaking Eric Bledsoe on the left. Bledsoe caught the lob but with a defender in his way threw another lob, mid-air, to a cutting Jon Leuer for a dunk.
– Bledsoe added 23 points, nine assists and tied his career high with four blocks. He and Knight combined for six blocks and eight steals. It was the first time since Nov. 21, 1991, that two Suns recorded at least 20 points, six assists and four steals. Those two Suns were Kevin Johnson and Hornacek.
– Offensively, the score could have been uglier for Phoenix early on. The Suns only trailed 27-25 after the first quarter but shot 33 percent and recorded six turnovers in that span. Minnesota could only score three points off those miscues.
– Bledsoe and Knight combined for seven of the team’s eight first-half turnovers, and they finished with 11 of 14 turnovers.
– Phoenix’s guards had their issues on defense. Backup point guard Zach LaVine scored 28 points on 10-of-19 shooting, while Kevin Martin had his way with Knight and the Suns’ defense as a whole, scoring 19 and getting to the foul line nine times.
HE SAID IT
“Ya’ll think I’m a meanie but I get frustrated with the questions because, what do you expect out of first-year or second-year players? Everybody assumes that because they’re talented, they know how to play defense.
“Wouldn’t you feel insulted if your higher-ups somebody that one year, fresh out of college, someone with no experience doing it at this level, can walk and do your job? Well, we as coaches and players feel insulted that as 20-year-old should be able to walk in this league and play at this level.” — T-Wolves coach Sam Mitchell before the game, when asked about his team’s defense giving up no less than 109 points in the last four games
STAT OF THE GAME
43: The Suns scored 43 points off 25 Minnesota turnovers, setting a franchise record for the stat that the Elias Sports Bureau first began recording in 1998.
– Chandler looked spry in 23 minutes and scored three points along with four boards and two assists. After missing eight games in a row Hornacek said the big man appeared to get tired in his sixth minute of play. Phoenix played the two centers the entire game aside from one possession to end the first half.
– Kevin Garnett played in a Minnesota jersey in Phoenix for the first time since March 20, 2007. His highest-scoring games of his career, of 47 and 44 points, both came against the Suns.
– Suns rookie Devin Booker had made his last eight three-point attempts before missing his only attempt Sunday.
– Phoenix, which measures its success in five-game sets, is now 2-1 in its current stretch with wins against the Magic and T-Wolves and a loss to the Blazers.
– Leuer scored 12 points, his seventh-straight game with double-digit points.
Revenge could be on the mind for the Suns.
Phoenix hits the road and will face the Dallas Mavericks on Monday night. The second meeting between the two teams this season comes after the Mavs opened the year at Talking Stick Resort Arena with a 111-95 blowout win over the Suns.
Dallas, led by 37-year-old Dirk Nowitzki’s 17 points per game, had itself a six-game winning streak in November and currently sits 13-11 on the year. But Rick Carlisle’s crew is on a two-game losing skid, losing to the Hawks and Wizards.