Suns learn they're fast, calm nerves against Maccabi Haifa

PHOENIX – Aside from the lost jump ball in the 2013-14 preseason opener on Monday night, the Phoenix Suns looked far and away the superior team compared to Maccabi Haifa. At least, the Suns were the most athletic team.

The result, a 130-89 win for the Suns, really never was a question, but Phoenix didn’t get much of a chance to nitpick. Head coach Jeff Hornacek’s demeanor seemed peppy and comedic on the bench, which is good for a team that could lose 60 or more games this season. It’s hard for even a stone-faced coach to be negative in such a blowout.

The Suns recorded 16 steals – P.J. Tucker and Eric Bledsoe had five each – and forced 24 turnovers that led to 35 points. They scored an astonishing 49 in the open court. That’s all gravy and due to a nice effort. But it’s not telling of much.

“Obviously, we’re going to play Portland our next game, they’re going to be much different to play against,” Hornacek warned. “You’re not going to get those steals, you’re going to play more solid. But you still want to have active hands.

“We probably didn’t get a chance to practice our offense tonight because we had so many fastbreak points inside the paint,” he added. “But the focus all year is going to be defense. Once we get the shots, make them take bad shots, we’re pretty good rebounders – get out and go.”

If there was something to take away from the rout, it was the nerves that got out for rookies Alex Len and Archie Goodwin. Len played nearly 16 minutes and scored seven points to go with six rebounds. He also had two consecutive passes from atop the foul stripe – one on a broken play and another against a Haifa zone – that showed his feel for the game.

Goodwin scored 13 points mostly in garbage time.

“The first game, real game, I’m sure they had some nerves,” Hornacek said. “Alex made a nice pass, got a blocked shot, good defense. He’s long, he can get those boards. Archie does what he does. He continues to run and move and things open up – he had a nice backdoor cut. It was nice to see those guys to come out in the latter part of the time they got and play well.”

And it was especially good to see Len play well considering he is still recovering from ankle surgery. His most recent procedure came nearly three months ago, and although Len felt an expected soreness from the surgery, he said the ankle feels structurally fine. His conditioning is also coming along nicely thanks to the training camp in Flagstaff.

Going 16 players deep on Monday, the rookies were actually the 11th and 12th men off the bench. The Suns ran out a starting lineup of Goran Dragic, Bledsoe, Tucker, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat and eventually went to a full second unit of Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown, Gerald Green, Marcus Morris and Miles Plumlee. That was smallball against a Haifa team whose most competent big man was thin power forward Brian Randle.

It wasn’t all about the blurring speed of Dragic and Bledsoe, who combined for 38 points and nine assists. A high-low game between Len and Slava Kravtsov looked smooth once Haifa countered a big lineup with a zone defense. Despite his preference to play with a stretch power forward, Hornacek said he expects to play with two bigs at the same time depending on matchups throughout the season.

The focus going into Wednesday’s game at Portland will be simple. The Suns don’t want to get caught up in the success that started with jumping the passing lanes against an inferior team.

“We want them to be aggressive but not get out of position when they go for those steals,” Hornacek said.

“Once we got up, (we had) just kind of a natural tendency to have that fall asleep on defense attitude,” he added. “It’s tough. I think overall we were just more athletic than some of those guys and we were able to get easy shots because of it.”

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Defensively, Hornacek said the Suns bigs will need to work on their pick-and-roll defense on the perimeter after allowing too many splits against soft hedges. And on offensive, one other negative was the Suns’ poor three-point shooting. Despite shooting 62.5 percent for the game, they hit just 5-of-17 three-pointers even though many of the looks were open.

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