PORTLAND - Can blowing a 23-point third-quarter lead be considered a step in the right direction? For the Phoenix Suns, it is when you win.
The Suns cruised through the first 26 minutes Tuesday against the Blazers, looking like they’d finally found a comfort zone with their new lineup. But when the offense started to hiccup, the defense tumbled right behind and they had to hang on by their fingernails for a 97-92 win that was more about guts than cohesion.
The Suns scored only one field goal in the final 6:48 of the third quarter and didn’t have any in the final 6:52 of regulation, but got by on free throws — and a little help from the talented but still young Blazers — to avoid their first three-game losing streak of the season.
Phoenix finished 7-for-29 in the second half (24 percent) but still prevailed thanks to hitting 22 of 26 free throws and just enough defense.
“We got lucky to win the game, but we’re fighting for our lives right now,” Phoenix coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We’re still not comfortable, and I think we missed some pretty wide-open looks that could have iced the game and just didn’t get it done.”
The Blazers got back to within two points several times, the last on a Jarrett Jack layup with 57 seconds left. But after two Amaré Stoudemire free throws pushed the Phoenix lead to four, Channing Frye was called for offensive goaltending trying to tip a Brandon Roy shot that was teetering on the rim. The Suns were able to escape with six Steve Nash free throws in the final 26 seconds.
Stoudemire battled through foul trouble and a sprained right ankle he suffered in the first quarter to lead the Suns with 22 points. Steve Nash scored eight of his 19 points down the stretch while Phoenix was flailing around looking for help.
The Suns showed some signs of growing more cohesive with Shaquille O’Neal, who put forth his best effort. He had six points, 13 rebounds and three blocks, causing trouble for the Blazers inside all night.
“We used him the way we want to and in the first half especially he looked really good in there,” D’Antoni said. “They shot 41 percent and he’s a big reason for that. There’s no easy layups and there’s not a lot of second-chance points. He’s cured some of our old problems, now we have to fix the new ones.”
But in the end the Suns held on against a Portland team that has proved to be a rude host this season (22-9) with wins over New Orleans, Dallas, Utah (twice) and, just Sunday, the L.A. Lakers.
The Suns also continue to take care of business on the front end of back-to-backs — where they are now 12-1 this season. It’s been a different story on the back end, where they are 5-6 heading into tonight’s meeting with the Nuggets in Denver.
It’s amazing what hanging on to the ball and playing a little defense can do for the Suns — which they did in the first half when they held the Blazers to 36 percent shooting and 41 points while pushing their lead up to as much as 21 points.
They had their best first quarter of the Shaq era, shooting 55 percent from the field and opening up a 13-point lead — and O’Neal was right in the middle of it. With Stoudemire in early foul trouble, O’Neal played 14 of the first 15 minutes and 19 minutes in the first half — contributing six points and nine rebounds.
Grant Hill had 18 points for the Suns, including a huge 3-pointer late in the third quarter when Phoenix appeared to be wilting under the Portland pressure. Boris Diaw added 10 of his 14 points in the first half but again did more harm than good after intermission.