PHOENIX — Arguably, the Phoenix Suns produced their most impressive half of basketball this season from an offensive perspective.
Devin Booker and Chris Paul took turns bullying the Brooklyn Nets to combine for 30 points, and the Suns led 75-54 at halftime by shooting 64% from the floor.
And there wasn’t a tinge of positivity by the end of the game on Tuesday.
Brooklyn dropped 34 points in the third quarter and 40 in the fourth, while Phoenix’s offense came down to earth. Then James Harden — carrying the Nets with stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving sidelined — hit a go-ahead jumper with 31 seconds left to give the Nets their first lead of the night, 126-124.
The Suns, who at one point in the second quarter led by 24, fell 128-124 to end a homestand at Phoenix Suns Arena with a 6-1 mark.
The story was Brooklyn’s comeback from a 21-point disadvantage at halftime, the largest halftime comeback in the team’s history dating back to 1976.
Yet the Suns (17-10) blamed poor execution on their own end, and after the first half they had, why wouldn’t they?
“When it got tough, we didn’t step up to the challenge,” forward Jae Crowder said. “Either end — we were out of sync on both ends. I think our defense played a part in (the offense).
“Disgusting loss in my eyes.”
Suns head coach Monty Williams saw red flags from the moment his team stepped onto the court for the third quarter.
“It wasn’t the last four minutes. I’m exaggerating a bit, but they had 74 points in the second half,” Williams said. “From a defensive standpoint, the ability to guard the ball and keep guys from getting to the basket was not great tonight.
Williams said the offense was stuck “in mud,” and that “the ball movement wasn’t there, the urgency wasn’t there and we gave a team life.”
Brooklyn, led by first-year head coach Steve Nash, also used halftime to clean up its defense that led to some Suns like Booker and Paul catch on fire.
In classic form for Nash and his assistant, former Suns head coach Mike D’Antoni, the Nets in the second half hit Phoenix with heavy pick-and-roll action. They leaned on a small-ball lineup with forward Jeff Green at center.
Green and Harden used the two-man game to their advantage, often getting Suns center Deandre Ayton to switch.
Against Ayton and others, they got to the cup off dribble-drives or kicked out for open threes. The Suns’ help defense then began leaving shooters like Joe Harris open while breaking from their defensive principles.
Williams, who committed to a big lineup, admitted the Suns players didn’t make that decision pay off.
“We should be able to take advantage of that with our size,” the coach said. “I didn’t think we did a good job — there were times where we threw it inside and our bigs brought the ball down and allowed their smalls to get their hands on the ball. And then we let them push them off the block a number of times tonight.
“We could go small and play small-ball but that’s to their advantage …”
The Nets took their first lead with 31 seconds left, when Harden stepped back for a straightaway three over Mikal Bridges to put his team up 126-124.
Harden wrapped his evening in front of 3,181 people, many of whom were Arizona State fans, with 38 points and 11 assists.
But after a 16-point first quarter, Booker cooled off, finishing with 22 and seven assists. Paul led Phoenix with 29 points, using a hot streak in the third to stave off the Nets — for the time being.
Harden, who played 31 minutes and had 29 points with eight assists heading to the fourth period, finally reentered with the Suns leading 113-108 and 5:33 left.
The Suns couldn’t do much with it. Harden scored or assisted on 18 of the Nets’ final 20 points.
“We all accepted it,” Bridges said of the loss. “We just know it’s unacceptable and we got to be better. We got to love those tough moments, when times get tough, we got to stay together.”