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Suns Strokes: Phoenix can’t hold on to lead in loss to Rockets

Houston Rockets guard James Harden, left, drives on Phoenix Suns forward P.J. Tucker in the first quarter of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

PHOENIX — Small steps continue to be made only two games into the Earl Watson era.

It’s the larger steps, those leading to wins that alluded the Phoenix Suns once again.

The positive: The Suns overcame a 12-point third-quarter deficit to go up four just five minutes into the fourth quarter.

The negative: The Suns were unable to hold the lead and dropped their sixth straight, losing 111-105 to the Houston Rockets in front of a Thursday night crowd of 15,723 at Talking Stick Resort Arena.

James Harden hit two free throws, Jason Terry made a 12-foot pull-up jumper and Trevor Ariza nailed a 3 to account for the Rockets’ seven unanswered points after Jordan McRae’s and-1 off a fastbreak lay-up following a steal to put the Suns ahead, 95-91.

Harden (17) and Ariza (22) joined Corey Brewer (24), Ty Lawson (12) and Clint Capela (10) in double figures, helping the Rockets (27-25) win for the fourth time in Phoenix, their longest road winning streak against the Suns in franchise history.

Brewer, whose 24 points were a season-high, scored 11 in the third quarter, in which the Suns were outscored, 32-21.

Archie Goodwin had 22 points to pace the Suns, while Alex Len recorded his sixth double-double of the season with 12 points and a career-high 18 rebounds.

Goodwin added seven assists, but turned the ball over six times.

As a team, the Suns (14-37) committed 24 turnovers, including on each of their final two possessions of the game.

The Suns led by 15 in the first quarter and as many as 13 in the second quarter, but they only carried a three-point advantage, 59-56, into the lockerroom at halftime.

The Suns have lost 21 of 23.

THE GOOD

Another fast start for the Suns, who scored the game’s first six points and led by 15, 20-5, midway through the opening quarter. Included in that start was a 10-0 run with Devin Booker and P.J. Tucker each hitting 3s. Booker finished the period with seven points, tied for team-high honors with Markieff Morris, who attempted seven of the Suns’ 24 first-quarter shots, making three.

Taking advantage of the Rockets’ aggressive play in the second quarter, the Suns attempted 13 foul shots. No one made more trips to the charity strip than Booker, who went three times and made five of his six attempts. Overall, he was 9-of-10 in the half, setting new career highs in both makes and attempts. As a team, the Suns went 19-of-20 at the foul line.

For a second straight game, Goodwin beat a quarter buzzer with a 3. His 25-foot fastbreak running jump shot with only a tenth of a second remaining capped a seven-point third-quarter performance. Goodwin also added two assists to account for 12 of the Suns’ 21 points in the period. Not to be outdone, Len had six points and a team-high seven rebounds in the quarter.

In the first 1:53 of the fourth quarter, the scoreboard read Mirza Teletovic 10, Rockets 3. Teletovic twice hit 3s and added a lay-up and a pair of free throws to cut Houston’s lead to one, 91-90. Teletovic finished with 15 points in 19 minutes off the bench, going 5-of-12 from the field, including 3-of-8 from beyond the arc. As a team, the Suns made 11-of-29 3-pointers.

THE BAD

After making seven of their first 12 shots, the Suns went cold. The dry spell included 10 straight missed field goals. Teletovic ended the near six-minute drought without a made shot with a lay-up at 0:24.2 of the first quarter. In between, the Rockets closed the gap, cutting a 15-point deficit to five thanks to a 14-4 run with Marcus Thornton scoring four points.

Behind Ariza’s seven points and Harden’s six, the Rockets set a Suns opponent high for second-quarter scoring with 37. Shooting 54.5 percent (10-of-17 2s, 2-of-5 3s), the Rockets overcame a 13-point deficit to take their one and only lead of the half, 52-51, on Josh Smith’s made free throw at 2:02 of the period. Smith’s play capped a 26-12 stretch for the Rockets.

Hard to score when you don’t have the basketball, and the Suns cost themselves with 10 third-quarter turnovers, including six over a nine-possession stretch. Those miscues led to 18 Rockets points, or just three less points than the Suns scored in the entire period. Morris committed three turnovers and led the team with five through three quarters.

Once again, Harden excelled against the Suns. Though he missed 15 of his 19 shot attempts, Harden reached double figures in scoring—thanks to a perfect 7-of-7 mark at the foul line—plus added nine rebounds and six assists. In his last seven games in Phoenix (six with Houston, one with Oklahoma City), Harden has averaged 29.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.4 assists.

STAT OF THE GAME

38: The number of Rockets points off 24 Suns turnovers, marking the ninth time this season the Suns committed 20 or more turnovers in a game

HE SAID IT

“It’s a process for him learning to play the point (guard position),” Watson said, referring to Goodwin. “It’s a hard position to play at any level, so to come into the NBA and play it against Patrick Beverley, one of the best defenders in the league at his position, was really tough. It’s a great test for him. He’s only going to get better and he’s never failed us with his energy and effort. I think he played well. Tough turnovers, but learning lessons for us right now moving forward.”

NOTED

– The game marked the 200th all-time meeting between the Suns and Rockets, which dates back to Dec. 6, 1968, when the Rockets played in San Diego; Suns lead 106-94 (.530).

– The game pitted the NBA’s two youngest coaches—Watson turned 36 last June, J.B. Bickerstaff three months earlier in March—and two of the league’s four interim head coaches.

– Former Suns great and the NBA’s first-ever Slam Dunk Champion Larry Nance was among those in attendance for ’80s Night; he participated in a pregame autograph session for fans.

– Weeks ago TNT dropped this game from its national broadcast schedule, which would’ve been the third and final time to feature the Suns, thus moving tip-off up 90 minutes to 7 p.m.

UP NEXT

The Suns face Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors of the Utah Jazz for the second time this season on Saturday, Feb. 6. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. with pregame coverage beginning 30 minutes earlier on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

In the first meeting on Dec. 21, Phoenix fell behind 27-9 with 3:51 to go in the first quarter and had to play from behind the entire game, falling to the Jazz 110-89 at EnergySolutions Arena. Brandon Knight scored a game-high 26 points off the bench and Teletovic had 17 points on 5-of-6 shooting, including three 3s, and a team-best seven rebounds.

For the series, the Suns have won 12 of the last 20 contests, including seven of nine at home, where they’ve beaten the Jazz two straight times.

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