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Suns Strokes: Suns battle with Cavaliers, lose 101-97

Phoenix Suns' P.J. Tucker shouts after being called for a foul during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers Monday, Dec. 28, 2015, in Phoenix. The Cavaliers defeated the Suns 101-97. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

With Eric Bledsoe scheduled for left knee surgery in the morning and hours after a shake-up to the coaching staff, the Phoenix Suns could’ve felt sorry for themselves and failed to show up for the finale of the three-game homestand.

They didn’t.

They didn’t win, but there was no faulting their effort or energy battling Cleveland, the Eastern Conference’s No.1 team, down to the wire before losing 101-97 in front of a soldout Talking Stick Resort Arena on Monday.

Kyrie Irving scored seven of his season-best 22 points in the fourth quarter, all of which came in the game’s final 47 seconds after the Suns had closed to within one, 96-95.

Irving made 7-of-16 shots, including a pair of 3s.

J.R. Smith added 17, Kevin Love 16 and LeBron James 14 as the Cavaliers (20-9) snapped a two-game losing streak.

The Suns, meanwhile, dropped their season-high fifth straight, including all three games on the homestand.

Down by as many as 11 points in the second half, the Suns (12-21) got as close as one on two separate occassions but never broke through in losing their fourth in a row at home.

Off the bench, T.J. Warren led the Suns with 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting, including a career-best four made 3s.

Starters Brandon Knight (18 points), P.J. Tucker (14), Jon Leuer (14) and Devin Booker (10) reached double figures as well.

The Suns have lost 16 of their last 21.

THE GOOD

With seven different players, including four of the five starters, scoring, the Suns opened with 30 first-quarter points, their best start to a game since Dec. 4 at Washington, when they scored 31 points. Leuer had a team-high seven points, while Booker and Tucker each added six. The Suns shot 56.5 percent from the field (13-of-23) with four 3s.

Seven of Warren’s 10 second-quarter points (on 4-of-6 shooting) came on second-chance opportunities, including a 3 which was assisted by Sonny Weems after an offensive rebound of Tucker’s missed 22-foot jumper at the 8:12 mark. Through the first half, the Suns had a 12-0 advantage in second-chance points, making 5-of-6 field goal attempts.

After missing their first field goal attempt of the third quarter, the Suns made six straight shots, three by Knight who scored nine points in a 14-6 run to cut an 11-point deficit (65-54 at the 10:51 mark) to two, 71-69 with 7:32 remaining in the period. Knight made a 3-pointer, back-to-back jump shots from 16 and 21-feet out plus two free throws.

After a scoreless third quarter, Warren exploded for 13 fourth-quarter points on 5-of-7 shooting including his third and fourth 3-pointers of the game and one free throw. With two games of 23 or more points in his first 72 career games, Warren is th first Suns player to accomplish that mark since Amar’e Stoudemire did so six times in his first 72 career games.

With his double-digit scoring effort, Knight has now scored at least 18 points for a fourth straight game. Leuer recorded his third straight game with at least 14 points. Tucker, meanwhile, reached double figures for the third time in his last five games and eighth game overall; Booker made it back-to-back games of 10 or more points for the first time in his career.

THE BAD

Twice the Cavaliers led by as many as six points and finished the first quarter with a season-best 34 points. Making his first start of the season, Irving made 3-of-5 field goal attempts, including a 3, for a team-high seven points. James added five (on 2-of-3 shooting), pushing him past Alex English (25,613) for 17th place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

Three-pointers by Love, Smith and Matthew Dellavedova highlighted a 13-1 Cavaliers second-quarter run, giving Cleveland its largest lead of the first half, 58-49 at the 2:04 mark. The Suns went nearly five minutes without a field goal, missing four shot attempts plus a pair of turnovers, bad passes by Leuer and Knight, the team’s fifth and sixth of the game.

Five missed field goals plus four turnovers added up to the Suns going scoreless the last 4:36 of the third quarter. The Cavaliers took advantage and closed the period on a 7-0 run for an 81-73 lead. All but two of Cleveland’s points came from the foul line, including a pair of free throws made by both Smith and Irving. Smith scored eight in the quarter.

For a split second there late in the fourth quarter the Suns thought they had taken the lead on a Knight 3-pointer, but Tyson Chandler was called for an illegal screen wiping the three points off the board with 46.6 seconds to play. It was the Suns’ 15th turnover of the game. They finished with 16, which the Cavaliers converted into 23 points.

STAT OF THE GAME

17: The number of Cavaliers made 3-pointers, one off their season-high of 18 set Nov. 23 against Orlando, on a franchise-record 41 attempts, a new season-high for a Suns opponent and the most since Houston shot 41 in Phoenix on March 9, 2013

HE SAID IT

“We were right there and I was proud of the guys—the way they came out,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said. “But we got to shore some things up. There were some loose balls we weren’t able to get that we need to get if we want to win those games. But overall, it was pretty good.”

NOTED

– Suns started their fourth different starting lineup in as many games and the eighth overall of the season.

– Suns lost both games during Markieff Morris’ two-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team.

– Bryce Cotton, out of Palo Verde High School in Tucson, was active for only the third time this season.

– Among those in attendance was Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who sat courtside.

– Eric Kern of Phoenix won $5,000 as part of the CenturyLink Prism Shot Challenge in the third quarter.

UP NEXT

After a week at home, the Suns will spend the next six days on the road, ringing in the new year halfway through a four-game trip.

The Suns’ first stop will be in San Antonio, where they’ll play the Western Conference’s second-best team, the Spurs, on Wednesday, Dec. 30. Tip-off is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. with pregame coverage beginning 30 minutes earlier on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

It’s the Suns second visit to AT&T Center this season.

In the first meeting, Morris had a season-high 28 points and team-best eight rebounds, but without Bledsoe, who missed the game with a sore left knee, the Suns scored a season-low and dropped their second game in two days, 98-84; losing a fourth straight to the Spurs.

Overall, the Suns have lost five of seven in the series.

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