SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The Suns may have picked their playoff opponent here Tuesday night. If so, they made a wise choice. In their most important, and maybe most spectacular, comeback this season, the Suns — down 17 points at halftime — played a near perfect second half in routing the Sacramento Kings, 123-110.
The win knocks the Kings, a team that has troubled the Suns in recent years, down to the No. 8 playoff seed with one week to go in the season.
If things stand as they do now, the No. 2 Suns would open the playoffs the following weekend at home vs. the No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers, a team the Suns have dominated the past two years. This didn’t seem likely at halftime, when the Suns — playing their season’s worst basketball the past month — trailed 68-51 and seemed dead in the water.
That’s when Raja Bell gave what might become known in Suns history as “The Speech.”
Recounted coach Mike D’Antoni, “He stood up and said, ‘That’s enough.
We’ve played bad for a month . . . Now, we play.’ ”
The Suns — playing with “live bodies” from the first play, according to Bell — outscored the Kings 72-42 in the second half; they shot 71 percent, a season high for a half.
“The message and the tone were right,” the Suns’ Brian Grant said of Bell’s talk.
Bell said, “We all understood we needed to play harder, especially against a team that was beating us physically and outhustling us.”
“He did a great job of voicing his opinion,” guard Steve Nash said. “It was the right timing. And we finally responded.”
D’Antoni took responsibility for the team’s slide afterward, saying, “It starts with me. It’s been a month since we had fire in our bellies.
“I’ve been a little lackadaisical.”
So, in this game, D’Antoni did his part, with some of his most fiery arguments with referees as a Suns coach (the Kings ended up with a 43-17 free-throw advantage).
“I was just being fiery,” he said.
“If I’m blasé and don’t care, then maybe nobody else cares.”
The Suns, down 76-60 with 7:39 left, played brilliantly at both ends the rest of the way, outscoring the Kings 63-34.
With less than 5 minutes left, the Suns broke open the game on a four-point possession. The Kings’ Ron Artest was called for a flagrant foul on Leandro Barbosa, which the Suns guard converted into two points.
Then Boris Diaw threw a pass high over the rim that Shawn Marion rose up to catch and throw down.
The Suns led 109-100 and never were challenged.
“We finally stuck our nose in there,” said Nash, who has complained of the Suns’ lack of competitive fire lately. Nash and Marion played limited minutes for the second straight game.
But this time, it really wasn’t by design.
Both got into foul trouble; Nash picked up three quick fouls, and with the Suns struggling, he reentered the game before halftime and picked up his fourth.
Nash also had to leave the game for several minutes after taking a knee in his hip in the third quarter.
Marion picked up his fifth foul early in the fourth quarter, after the Suns had erased a 17-point deficit, in part on his drives to the hoop.
To give the Suns more size up front, D’Antoni started Tim Thomas up front, while James Jones came off the bench.
Thomas went against Kenny Thomas at the “four” spot while Marion shifted to the small forward spot against Artest.
That didn’t exactly work in the first half, when the Kings shot 65 percent.
But everything came together afterward.
“Tim and James both played well,” D’Antoni said.
Thomas ended up with 13 points, seven rebounds and three steals in 35 minutes, while Jones had 11 points and zero turnovers in 20 minutes.
GRANT'S GOOD GAME
The Suns got a lift from Grant, who gave them six points, four rebounds and solid interior defense in 13 minutes.
Said Grant, who acknowledged he probably played his season’s best game, said, “I got an opportunity to score when we weren’t up by 30 or down by 30.
“The buckets counted.”