For the second season in a row, the Phoenix Suns are the team to hand the NBA's Eastern Conference leader their first loss of the season. Last year, it was a road win over the Boston Celtics and today the Suns defeated the previously undefeated Altanta Hawks. The Suns are now 3-3 on the season while the Hawks fall to 6-1.
The Suns jumped out to a 61-50 at the end of the first half and extended that to an 18-point lead about halfway through the third quarter. The Hawks, however, fought back with a barrage of three-point shots. The home team went 6 of 10 from three-point range in that period after starting the game 0 of 8 from long range. Mike Bibby and Jamal Crawford were the shooting stars, with a combined 17 points out of the Hawks 38-point third quarter total.
That set up a fourth quarter that was once again nip-and-tuck for the Suns, but unlike earlier games in the season, this time Phoenix was able to close things out strong -- or at least strong enough. The Hawks were able to match the Suns basket-for-basket for most of the quarter, leading to a tie game with just 43 seconds remaining.
Out of the timeout, the Suns tried to run Jason Richardson off a down screen from center Channing Frye, a play that had previously resulted in two J-Rich baskets. This time when the Hawks switched the screen, Frye ended up being defended by guard Mike Bibby. The Suns swung the ball to Frye in the post, who was able to score in-close to put Phoenix ahead 114-112 with 24 seconds remaining.
The Hawks had scored on their previous five offensive possessions and were beating the Suns on the glass to get second chance points throughout the game. Needing a big defensive stop, the Suns left Jason Richardson on Joe Johnson, who drove the ball to the middle of the lane and tossed up a floater over at least three Suns defenders. The ball bounced off the rim and into the hands of Al Horford, who inexplicably fumbled it out of bounds, giving the Suns possession with a two point lead and only 8.5 seconds. The game ended with Nash hitting hitting four throws and the Suns preventing the Hawks from getting a good look at a three-point shot.
The Suns' offensive formula is starting to take form this season, with the secret sauce being a nice blend of balance from both the starting five and the bench five. Every one of the ten Suns players that were on the court scored at least five points and Phoenix had six players in double figures, led by Jason Richardson's 21 points. Richardson leads the Suns in scoring this season with a 22.8 per game.
Steve Nash, who had been shooting the ball poorly thanks to self-described "tired legs," found the range in this game. He finished with 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting and had a season-high 15 assists. The Suns bench once again was a big part of the Suns' success as they outscored the Hawks' reserves 46-19 and, as a group, were 50 percent from the field.
The Hawks were led by Joe Johnson's 34 points (15-27) shooting and Al Horford inside, who finished with 30 points and 10 rebounds. Atlanta's defense stayed true to their normal form and switched screens both off and on the ball. That left the Suns with a variety of mismatches to exploit, whether it was Nash attacking a bigger defender or the Suns swinging the ball to a wing player like Josh Childress or Grant Hill to attack Jamal Crawford in the post.
The Suns travel to Memphis for a game tomorrow against the Grizzlies at 6:00 p.m. local time in Arizona.