MINNEAPOLIS - The Suns shot 52 percent from the field Friday night, drained 12 3-pointers, handed out 34 assists on 43 baskets and kept their scoring average for the week well above the 116-point mark. Imagine what they might do once Steve Nash’s shoulder is strong enough to start nailing jumpers again.
Nash scored only one basket at the Target Center, but he has the Suns’ offense shifted back into the correct gear — spraying around 15 assists at a pace that allowed Shawn Marion, Amaré Stoudemire and Leandro Barbosa to run ahead of a pack of frustrated Timberwolves and avenge last month’s loss here decisively, 116-104.
Just 25 days ago, Kevin Garnett had a 44-point masterpiece, scoring 15 in the fourth quarter, willing the T-Wolves to snap Phoenix’s franchise-record, 17-game winning streak. Garnett had another huge night (28 points, 19 rebounds), but had only four points in the fourth with Stoudemire drawing the main defensive assignment and getting lots of help.
“This time we closed them out and we were able to pull away,” said Stoudemire, who had 11 of his 23 points in the first eight minutes. “That was my first time guarding (Garnett) the whole game, but we did a great job throwing the double teams at him.”
After limping into the All-Star break on a three-game losing streak without Nash, the Suns have now won three straight — winning for the 21st time in their last 24 road games — and are scoring 116.3 points a game while shooting nearly 52 percent from the field.
Marion was the star of the night with 27 points, 14 rebounds and three huge blocks in a 23-second span late in the fourth quarter — after Minnesota had cut a 15-point Phoenix lead to eight with 2:46 to go. Two came just six seconds apart when rookie Randy Foye made consecutive assaults on the basket and left rejected each time.
“I was just being active. I came from the weak side and got some good blocks,” Marion said. “We have a lot of people capable of big nights. Last time K.G. had a big night on us and we wanted to get it back.”
Barbosa (24 points) followed Marion’s last block with the fifth of his six 3-pointers, and any visions Minnesota had of beating the Suns again were gone.
“They tried to come back, but Shawn Marion just erased everything,” Phoenix coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He did it all tonight (four assists, three 3-pointers, two steals). It was scary.”
Barbosa and James Jones (16 points) put up 40 points off the bench and combined to hit 16-of-28 shots from the floor — which was a good thing since Nash (1-for-7) and a gimpy Raja Bell (3-for-12) weren’t producing much. But when the Suns are running and gunning, they find the open man, and eventually a hot one.
“It was evident when Steve was out we didn’t have the same rhythm,” Bell said. “We were running a half-court offense and that’s not our style. Just having him in there pushing the ball and his decision-making is big. A lot of us depend on him getting us the ball in the right position.”
Nash had seven of his nine points from the free throw line, but said his shoulder is getting stronger and he’s getting more confidence with it.
“We’re not super sharp, but the ball is moving well and we’re scoring at a pretty good clip,” Nash said. “I’m not 100 percent, but I’m finding ways to contribute.”
To which Bell added: “Yeah, if you’re into 15 assists … he’s OK, I guess.”
Boris Diaw missed his fifth straight game Friday, but he’s made enough progress with his back that he will try to practice today in Atlanta with an eye toward returning against the Hawks.
“He still hasn’t been able to run yet,” D’Antoni said. “He can go side-to-side and backwards, but he still feels it running forward. Hopefully, another day of treatment and more improvement will get him there.”
Bell was a game-time decision before Friday’s game after hyperextending his right knee during Wednesday’s win over Boston. Bell isn’t sure when he hurt the knee, but speculated it was when he slipped on a towel on the sidelines.
“At shootaround I didn’t think I’d be able to play, but when I woke up from my nap it was better,” said Bell, who missed 9-of-12 shots and 7-of-8 3-pointers but played 42 minutes. “I couldn’t get up on my jump shot, I didn’t have the legs, but I was able to get up and down the floor OK.”
Before the game, the crowd observed a moment of silence for ex-Sun Dennis Johnson, who passed away of a heart attack Thursday at the age of 52.
Suns assistant Alvin Gentry was hit especially hard. Johnson was his assistant for 2½ seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, and Johnson took over as interim coach when Gentry was fired.
“He was trying to work his way back to the league by coaching in the CBA,” Gentry said. “To me, there are a lot of guys who played in the NBA who say they want to be coaches. But he was one who really meant it and was willing to pay that price.
“I knew he had some health issues, they were watching his weight and cholesterol. But no one expected what happened.”
Gentry was so impressed with Johnson’s work ethic he kept him off the old staff when he took over the Clippers.
“I had Darius (Miles) and Quentin (Richardson) and those guys, and he’d play them one-on-one. Even though he was overweight, he’d still kick their butts.”