Sticky-fingered Slovenian Goran Dragic made us forget about Steve Nash in the fourth quarter of the Phoenix Suns' solid victory over the feared-and-loathed San Antonio Spurs last night.
Almost. Nash did put up impressive numbers in the game at US Airways Center: 18 points and 12 assists in just 30 minutes.
Point being that the second-oldest guy in the Suns starting lineup (Grant Hill's the oldest by a year) wasn't needed in the fourth quarter. Neither was his starting back-court mate Jason Richardson.
Reason being that Dragic took care of business against the Spurs -- and looked like the sure-fire Suns starting point guard of the future. Nash has only one more year left on his contract. After that, who knows? He could retire, come off the bench, or be even better than ever as the starting floor leader. This year has taught us never to count Nash out.
But one thing's for sure: Dragic, in his second NBA season, sealed the deal against Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker, and the rest of the dreaded Men in Black.
With 5:40 left in the final period and Dragic running the show, the Suns pushed a five-point lead to 12 points. Then, the fun really began. The speedy reserve stole the ball and blasted down court for a layup, getting fouled in the process. He made the free throw for a three-point play. Next, as San Antonio was bringing the ball the other way, Dragic stole it again and made an on-the-money outlet pass to Hill for a slam-dunk.
That gave the Suns a 17-point lead, and the Spurs were on their heels until the final buzzer
Dragic's two steals were among seven for Phoenix in the game, which is one reason he doesn't deserve all the credit for the 112-101 victory. This was a team game, played without back-injured starting center Robin Lopez. the guy who neutralized the great Duncan the last time the teams played. We wondered if the Suns could muster any might in the middle without the seven-foot, defensive-minded Lopez.
But they did. Jared Collins, Amar'e Stoudemire, and Channing Frye (but motly Frye) teamed up to hold Duncan to 14 points and seven reounds. Plus, Lou Amundson, Jared Dudley, and Hill bothered the hell out of the Spurs on D to help hustle up the win.
Stoudemire was the high scorer in the game with 29 points (he also pulled down eight rebounds), Richardson scored 20, 13 in a blazing third-quarter stretch; and Hill put in 17.
The beauty of this game was that it answered a big question.
After the Suns' 10-game winning streak came to an end with a 107-98 loss to the 42-34 Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night -- the first team with a winning record they'd played since Lopez went down -- we wondered if they could beat a good team without him. The win against the 48-30 Spurs, who always come to play against Phoenix, proved that they can.
The race for playoff spots is tight in the West. The 55-22 Los Angeles Lakers have a solid hold on first place, but only three games separate second place from the eighth and final seed. Now see if you can connect the dots:
The 48-30 Spurs are in a three-way tie with the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Portland Trailblazers for sixth place, and the 51-27 Suns are in a three-way tie with the Dallas Mavericks and the Denver Nuggets for second. The Utah Jazz, 51-28, are all alone in fifth.
Except for the Lakers, all for the time being.
Phoenix has four games left in the regular season. The next is Friday night against the 48-30 Thunder, led by league scoring leader Kevin Durant (he edges out Cleveland's LeBron James by a tenth of a point). Then come home games against the 40-38 Houston Rockets and Carmelo Anthony and the Nuggets, with the last game in Salt Lake City against Carlos Boozer and the Jazz, always a tough match-up for the Suns.
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If teams continue to have identical records at the end of the regular season, tie-breaking scenarios will come into play. For instance, if two teams finish tied, the one with the best regular-season record against the other will win the higher playoff seed. That is, unless a team wins its division, which would give them the edge. It's complicated.
Tip-off for Friday night's game in Oklahoma City is 5 p.m. our time. TV: My45. Radio: KTAR 620 AM. For more information, go to www.suns.com.