HOUSTON (AP)—Believe it or not, the high-scoring Phoenix Suns had to rely on some tough defense to get out of Houston with their fifth straight win.
“It was one of those games when you would have liked to play better offensively,” said Phoenix coach Mike D’Antoni, not surprisingly lamenting his team’s offensive woes. “But they only shot 34 percent. So, on one hand, defensively we did a great job.”
Jim Jackson came off the bench to score 15 points to help keep the Suns running smoothly on a night when two of their All-Stars, point guard Steve Nash and power forward Amare Stoudemire, struggled to score. They combined to shoot 6-of-17 for just 14 points.
But Marion, Phoenix’s third and most often overlooked All-Star, flourished on a night when the Suns couldn’t get the ball to drop from them like it usually does.
The 6-foot-7 forward snatched away rebounds from Houston, helped lock down Rockets leading scorer Tracy McGrady and raced up and down the court for some highlight reel-worthy dunks.
“What can you say about him?,” D’Antoni said of Marion. “It was just another day at the office. People don’t realize how good he is … he may be unappreciated by some people but not by us.”
The victory kept Phoenix ahead in the race for the league’s best record (56-17) with nine games to play as they battle Miami and San Antonio for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. The Suns also found out they can win games even when they’re bogged down by a good defense, a trademark of postseason winners.
The Rockets, meanwhile, couldn’t take advantage of a rare off-night by Phoenix. They were held to 78 points, about 26 fewer than the Suns’ league-worst average, and failed to get an unusually active Yao Ming more involved in the offense.
Yao was back in the lineup after missing Friday’s loss to New Orleans with a sore right calf. Wearing a protective black sleeve around his lower leg, Yao had 19 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks.
McGrady had only 13 points on 6-of-21 shooting and forward Ryan Bowen, in only his fifth start of the year, scored a season-high 14 points.
McGrady blamed his subpar performance on tendinitis in both of his knees.
“Right now, I feel like I’m 40 years old,” said McGrady, who turns 26 in May. “It’s hard for me to do what I do on the basketball court. It’s bothering me right now and that’s why I’m a little sluggish.”
The Suns, who lead the league in scoring with 110.7 points a game, improbably went about seven minutes without scoring during a stretch from late in the first quarter to midway through the second.
During that span, Phoenix missed 13 straight shots, two free throws and committed five turnovers. Of course, that’s not necessarily a surprise considering it came against the league’s fourth-best defense.
The Suns were held to a season-low 10 points in the second quarter, and tied another low with 41 points at the half. They trailed by a point at halftime.
But the plodding Rockets couldn’t keep it up, and Marion scored five points during a third quarter-closing 7-0 spurt to give the Suns a 69-62 lead and put them firmly in control the rest of the way.
“I kept on attacking the basket and I knew sooner or later it would fall,” Marion said. “I started feeling it a little bit.”
Because of foul trouble and uncharacteristic offensive struggles, Stoudemire failed to share much court time with Yao. Stoudemire, who averages 26 points a game, scored nine points and grabbed 14 rebounds in his second game since missing two straight with an ankle injury.
Yao and Stoudemire have struck up something of a rivalry since both entering the league as lottery picks in the 2002 draft, Yao as the top pick and Stoudemire slipping to Phoenix at No. 9.
Stoudemire edged Yao for the Rookie of the Year award in 2002-03, and has rapidly developed into one of the game’s premier big men despite being just three years removed from his high school days in Florida. Yao’s development has taken a little more time despite getting All-Star nods each of the three years he’s been in the league.
Yao got the best of their individual matchup again—much as he has recently — but Stoudemire got the win. Yao and the Rockets get another crack at Phoenix on Saturday.
Rockets guard Jon Barry sat out the game because of back spasms. … Jackson, who the Rockets sent to New Orleans on Dec. 17, played in Houston for the first time since the trade. … The Rockets went with their 14th different starting lineup of the season. … Nash reached double figures in assists in 14 consecutive games, the longest such streak since Mark Jackson did the same for Denver in 1996-97. He had 11 on Sunday. … The road team has won all three games in this season’s series.