Just hours before the Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets tipped off at U.S. Airways Center on Thursday night, the league announced that point guard Steve Nash earned Western Conference All-Star honors for the eighth time in his career. By the way he played, you would have thought Nash had been snubbed. The future Hall of Fame floor general -- who turned 38 years old on Tuesday -- scored 14 points on a perfect 7-7 shooting and dished out 13 assists as the Phoenix starters scored 76 of the team's 89 points on a combined 57.7 percent from the field and outscored Houston's staring five by a whopping 33 points. However, the Rockets' bench outpaced the Phoenix reserves 57-13 in points, 26-4 on the glass and 18-3 in assists as Houston picked up a 96-89 road victory.
The plus-minus differential in the box score can sometimes tell a misleading story, but in this case the numbers are spot on across the board. This contest truly did feature a matchup of the Suns' ying versus the Rockets' yang. No Houston starter manage a positive plus-minus differential, while every member of Suns' feature quintet of Steve Nash (+14), Jared Dudley (+5) , Grant Hill (+14), Channing Frye (+0) and Marcin Gortat (+9) all avoided a negative split. The bench stats for both teams flipped that script upside down. Every Suns player who came off the bench recorded a negative plus-minus mark, while Goran Dragic (+27), Courtney Lee (+18), Chase Budinger (+25) and Patrick Patterson (+20) all shot 50 percent or better off the bench for the Rockets and helped key the road win for Houston.
The marked disparity between the bench and starters for each team led to some wild swings throughout the game. The Suns jumped out to an early 17-8 lead thanks to three early assists and two quick points from Nash, but the Rockets answered the run with a huge second quarter from their backup unit. The Lee-Patterson-Hill-Dragic-Budinger unit combined for 20 of the team's 23 points, including 11 made baskets and 9 assists as a group, in the period to give the Rockers a 10-point lead heading into halftime. Alvin Gentry came back with his starters in the third period, and the Suns quickly worked in a 26-9 run to put Phoenix back on top 70-63 with 3:15 remaining the third period. Rockets head coach Kevin McHale acknowledged the advantage of his bench in the fourth quarter, as he left Luis Scola and Kevin Martin on the bench for the entire quarter. The reward for McHale was a 22-13 advantage in the final frame that propelled Houston to victory on a night that otherwise seemed destined to belong to Steve Nash.
Aside from the sweeping dominance of the Rockets' bench unit, the other reason the night did not completely belong to Steve Nash is that former Suns guard Goran Dragic played up to the challenge. He scored 11 points on 5-8 shooting and dished out a team-high 11 assists, and looked a lot like the player Nash mentored in Phoenix during the 2010-11 season than he has at other times in the season. Dragic couldn't quite match the 14 points and 13 assists posted by Nash, but he did look effective, disruptive and creative when running transition offense.
When the game got tight in the fourth quarter, the Suns wilted under the pressure. After such a strong night, the Phoenix Nash-Dudley-Hill-Frye-Gortat unit only managed four points in the final 6:10 of the game. At the same time, the Rockets scored 12 points off the bench during that decisive span and came away with a 96-89 victory in hand. Turnovers killed the Suns' in late-game execution on Wednesday, while Budinger and Lowry did the heavy lifting to seal the outcome.
Channing Frye led the Suns in scoring and rebounds with 21 points and 10 rebounds, and every Phoenix starter scored in double figures. Patrick Patterson shot 6-8 for 14 points and grabbed 6 rebounds. For the Rockets, no player in the starting lineup shot better than 50 percent from the field. The staff at The Dream Shake chose to focus their attention on Dragic and company after the game:
Dragic may have been the bench leader, but the bench as a whole was just wonderful. All were great. But the best performer (after Dragic) was certainly Patrick Patterson. Patterson played like the Rockets' power forward of the future, knocking down everything he was given, rebounding well, and just rarely making a mistake. We talked about this in the OALABII post -- Patterson plays very intelligent basketball. The game-icing rebound (I like thinking of it that way) was a clever little tip from Patterson (against Gortat) towards Lowry. Oh, and he scored 14 points (on 8 shots, half of which must have been wide-open jumpers he found). So, you know, P-Squared was great.
Dragic-Patterson reminds me of the '09 bench one-two of Lowry-Landry. That was pretty cool back in the day, too.
With the loss, the Suns snapped a three-game winning streak and fell to 11-15 overall, while the Rockets improved to 16-11 and are now 3-1 on their six-game road trip.