By my count, the Los Angeles Lakers have restarted their season between three and thirty times already this year. The Suns, on the other hand, have hit the reset button only once. Tonight’s victory, a 106-96 win against the Sacramento Kings, was the first of the Lindsey Hunter era. It was sloppy to say the least, but first dances always are. The Suns, at times, looked awkward on both ends of the floor, but they put in a great effort and got a much deserved win in their penultimate trip to Sacramento.
Before and during the game, first-time head coach Hunter stressed ball movement to his team. It complied with his wishes for the most part but with very mixed results. While the Suns only had 12 turnovers according to the box score, that number doesn’t account for the huge number of bobbles, tips and ricochets there were in this game. The Suns moved the ball too quickly for their own good at times. Though they scored 106 points on nearly 48 percent shooting, the offense looked far from dialed in. Ball movement is and will continue to be crucial for Phoenix’s offensive success, but it didn’t contribute nearly as much in this one as Sacramento’s lazy defense. It’s a great sign for the rest of the year that the team was so committed to moving the ball right off the bat under Hunter. It’s also a great sign that despite a solid offensive night statistically, the Suns still have lots of room for improvement on that end of the floor.
Defensively, the Suns were flying around the court with reckless abandon. Phoenix looked energized. The Suns weren’t always in the right position, but their effort on the defensive end was greater than any game I can recall from the first half of the year. On the positive side, the Suns’ outstanding effort led to 27 points off 25 turnovers. On the negative side, the Suns’ poor positioning led to 18 offensive rebounds and 58 points in the paint for Sacramento.
The Suns were totally lost on the boards, getting outrebounded 49-30. The Kings’ bigs – DeMarcus Cousins and Thomas Robinson – were too much for Phoenix’s frontline. The duo pulled down 29 boards combined. The Suns’ rebounders were pushed under the basket far too often, allowing Sacramento to grab rebounds in the middle of the key. Even more unforgivable, Phoenix gave up 20 fastbreak points. Standard basketball logic would posit that if a team is getting killed on the boards, it’s because players are running back on defense instead of crashing the boards. That wasn’t the case at all in tonight’s game. The Suns’ guards were caught in no man’s land – not close enough to the hoop to rebound but not deep enough to stop the ball in transition. Phoenix gave up way too many easy buckets. Had the Kings not missed nine of their 24 free throws, this result may have gone their way.
The King’s success shouldn’t over shadow Phoenix’s defensive effort though. The Suns completely stifled Sacramento in the fourth, closing out the game on a 30-14 run. In the final period, the Kings turned the ball over eight times, and star forward DeMarcus Cousins was completely shut out. Overall, Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola did a commendable job defending Cousins. Even though he ended the night with a double-double, DeMarcus missed 11 of his 18 shots, turned the ball over six times and didn’t get to the free throw line once. In the fourth, Boogie was visibly frustrated and about a hair’s breadth away from getting a technical foul.
Offensively, Scola was the key to the game for Phoenix despite only playing 29 minutes because of foul trouble. Luis scored a game-high 21 points including nine in the fourth quarter as the Suns took control of the game. Scola also dished out four assists, a few coming on plays similar to those we broke down in a piece earlier today. If he continues to perform like this, Scola will become the de facto centerpiece of Phoenix’s offense.
Michael Beasley was also outstanding tonight. Beas scored 13 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter. He was efficient, hitting eight of his 15 shots and connecting on his lone three-point attempt. Other than that lone trey, all of Michael’s makes came from inside the paint, a fact that bodes well for both him and the team moving forward.
Goran Dragic posted a double-double (12 points and 11 assists) for the first time in nearly a month.
Hunter and the front office have both expressed a desire to get the Suns’ younger players more minutes in the second half of the season. That wasn’t really the case in this game. Kendall Marshall saw no time at all as Sebastian Telfair retained his role as backup point guard. Wesley Johnson got eight minutes, and Luke Zeller got a surprise two minutes. Zeller likely got off the bench because Jermaine O’Neal didn’t travel with the team to Sacramento for an undisclosed reason.
The Suns didn’t miss O’Neal much though. Markieff Morris gave them a very solid contribution in 25 minutes. Down the stretch, Phoenix went with a frontcourt of Morris, Beasley and Scola, which more than held its own against the powerful frontline of Sacramento.
The lineup and the allocation of minutes will probably fluctuate from game to game. I expect that Hunter went with veterans tonight to help build the team’s confidence by getting a win against a favorable opponent. As the schedule gets tougher, like tomorrow night at home to the Clippers, the younger guys may see more minutes.
In the mean time, the Suns are 1-0 after their respawn and quietly have won two road games in a row.