This much is clear: The Phoenix Suns are more than capable of beating the worst of the worst.
What isn’t so clear — and has been a bit fuzzy all season — is whether this same Suns team can beat the best of the best, which will be necessary if they hope to avoid a fifth straight season of missing the playoffs.
Behind double-doubles from Eric Bledsoe (21 points and 11 assists) and Brandan Wright (18 points and 11 rebounds), plus double-figure scoring from Marcus (20) and Markieff (14) Morris, the Suns handed the New York Knicks, the Eastern Conference’s worst team, a 102-89 loss in front of 17,264 at US Airways Center on Sunday.
Just four days earlier, the Suns dispatched the Western Conference’s worst team, the Minnesota Timberwolves.
A sluggish start put the Suns (35-33), wearing their purple “Los Suns” jerseys, in an 11-point hole early.
But a quick 9-2 close to the second quarter and a 12-3 start to the third quarter helped the Suns turn an eight-point disadvantage (46-38) into an eight-point advantage (59-51). Overall, the Suns outscored the Knicks 21-5 during an 8:12 stretch in which Marcus Morris scored seven points and Bledsoe added five.
Bledsoe just missed his third triple-double of the season, finishing one rebound short.
Wright, meanwhile, recorded season-highs in both points and rebounds for his first double-double since joining the Suns. He played a career-high 37 minutes.
The win kept the Suns three games back in the race for the Western Conference’s eighth playoff seed as they caught a Knicks (13-53) team ending a West Coast road trip with their fifth game in seven nights.
Coming off a career-high and Suns season-high with five steals, Markieff Morris swiped two balls in the first quarter, including on the opening possession of the game, taking the ball away from Andrea Bargnani. Morris also had seven points on 3-of-6 shooting to lead the Suns after 12 minutes of action.
Making his first Suns start and first NBA start in almost two years,Wright totaled five points and five rebounds — a point and board better than he had in 23 minutes vs. Atlanta — in the first quarter. He made 2-of-3 shots plus 1-of-2 from the foul line, and two of his rebounds came on the offensive end.
Trailing by nine, the Suns went on a 13-5 run to close the second quarter and go into the locker room down one, 48-47. Bledsoe capped the run with a one-handed slam down the middle of the lane. He scored nine in the quarter and had 11 points, four rebounds, five assists and a steal at the half.
Marcus Morris scored five points during a 9-0 Suns third-quarter run that turned a one-point deficit (51-50) into an eight-point advantage (59-51) that would never be lost. Morris would add four more points for a nine-point effort in the period.
It began with a P.J. Tucker 3-pointer and ended with Marcus Morris following up his own miss with a layup for a run of nine unanswered points to give the Suns their largest lead of the game, 96-80, at the 4:45 mark of the fourth quarter.
Archie Goodwin had career-highs of five assists and three steals, in addition to a season-high 23 minutes.
The Suns committed three of their seven first-quarter turnovers during a 13-2 Knicks run. The third turnover, a bad Goodwin pass, led to an Alexey Shved 3-pointer and 29-18 New York lead with 53.9 remaining in the period. It would mark their largest advantage of the game.
Marcus Morris hit just about everything, except when it came time to head to the free throw line. On two second-quarter trips, he misfired on all four attempts, making him 7-of-16 for the month at the charity stripe.
Gerald Green attempted five shots in a six-possession Suns stretch in the second quarter. He made a 3-pointer and then missed two from deep before connecting on a nine-foot jumper, which preceded another miss. Green, who had been a DNP-Coach’s Decision each of the past two games, finished 2-of-6 for five points in six minutes.
TJ Warren appeared to tip in a missed shot into the Knicks’ basket as he fought for the rebound in the fourth quarter. Officially, Bargnani got credited for the two-point basket for part of his 18-point effort, sharing team-high honors with Shved.
STAT OF THE GAME
14, 3: The number of Suns assists and turnovers in the second half after a 10-assist, 10-turnover first half
HE SAID IT
“I think there have been other times when they have been ticked off,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said of the team’s mood at halftime. “I think the biggest thing is they realized they were fouling too much and too many turnovers. We had 10 turnovers in the first half, which allowed them 16 turnover points, which that’s a killer. They took care of the ball in the second half and we ended up with 14 assists and three turnovers in the second half, which is great, and then we didn’t foul them as much. They played much better in that second half.”
With the victory, the Suns evened the all-time series against the Knicks at 60-60.
For a time in the first quarter, Seth Curry and Goodwin shared the same backcourt — something they hadn’t done since Summer League in Las Vegas.
Down to 12 healthy players, the Suns were minus Danny Granger, Brandon Knight and Alex Len. Knight missed his third straight game with a left ankle sprain, while Len nursed a right ankle sprain.
No opposing player has played in more regular-season games at US Airways Center than Derek Fisher’s 33. The Knicks’ first-year head coach averaged 8.5 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals and 25.8 minutes in those games.
Suns NBA D-League affiliate Bakersfield (31-11) became the first team this season to clinch a playoff berth with Saturday’s 127-118 road win over the Reno Bighorns.
After a three-day break — their longest rest period since the All-Star break — the Suns will return home to host the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. with pregame coverage beginning 30 minutes earlier on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.
The game will be a big one, as the Pelicans (36-30) are two games ahead of the Suns and one game back of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who currently hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.
New Orleans beat the Suns 110-106 at Smoothie King Center in the first matchup Dec. 30. Tyreke Evans scored a game-high 24 points and Anthony Davis added 19 to go with 18 rebounds as the Pelicans shot 51.9 percent from the floor to end the Suns’ season-long six-game winning streak.
The teams will meet one final time in New Orleans on April 10.