A lot of heroes in this one, as no fewer than seven Suns made major contributions to the team’s sixth straight victory. But the hero of heroes had to be Grant Hill, and not just because he led all scorers with 26 points.
Hill has been the most consistently effective player on this team all year, as he and Shaquille O’ Neal continue to collaborate on one of the best and most surprising comeback dramas of this or any other season.
I’ve often lamented that Hill is so smooth and does so many things so well he doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves for the team’s resurgence. But just one play in this game probably blew his “cover” — and also demonstrated why his smarts are as big a part of his game as his multiple skills.
The scored was tied at 114 with some 37 seconds to go in a game the Suns desperately needed to keep their playoff hopes from becoming a pipe dream. Hill was dribbling the ball in the corner, and it looked as though the Jazz might be thinking double team depending on what he did. But he read what they were thinking accurately, timed his spin into the lane perfectly, and hit a soft jumper that basically turned out to be the game winner.
This is not only the healthiest he’s been in years, but at 36 he’s playing as effectively as he did back in his pre-injury prime, and is as big a reason as any the Suns have been able to overcome key injuries to reel off six straight victories while playing the best basketball by any team in the West not named Los Angeles. As has been noted here before, there are no holes in his game (or his head), and his IQ (intangible quotient) is off the charts.
His “collaborator” wasn’t too shabby Wednesday night either. Shaq not only had 12 points and as many rebounds, but also handed out 5 assists. And for the second game in a row he drained two free throws at a critical juncture.
But the Suns are clicking on seven not two cylinders right now, and both Matt Barnes and Jason Richardson had 21 points, and Steve Nash had 14 assists. And Louis Amundson and Goran Dragic continue to play so well the injuries to Amar’e Stoudemire and Leandro Barbosa may turn out to have been something of a blessing in disguise (albeit a very good disguise) in the long run..
Amundson was an early crowd favorite in brief appearances early in the season mostly because of his eye-catching hustle and flailing style. But the “book” on him was that he was just a nice kid who tried hard. But while he is both of the above, he’s also turning out to be considerably more than that. He had 10 points, 5 boards, and 2 blocks in less than 19 minutes last night, and the energy he brings off the bench is a big plus.
As for Dragic, he almost disappeared from view the first half of the season, but Coach Alvin has given him more minutes, and he has responded with some significant contributions while resurrecting hopes he may have the future as a point guard the Suns saw originally saw in him. Last night he had 11 points, including two long three-point bombs, and while he understandably lacks polish, he is not shy about shooting or any other aspect of the game, and that confidence is growing along with his minutes.
In fact, the bench continues to deliver big points and big minutes while giving the veteran stars some much needed relief. And their defense, while not exactly impregnable, continues to deliver big stops at key moments — which more often than not is all they really need to win.
The bottom line: The odds are still stacked against them, but this team has already beaten even longer odds just to be this close, and as I noted here earlier this week, I still have the feeling they’re going to make it.