PHOENIX – One preseason game through what’s expected to become a trying season, the Phoenix Suns like their vision. The roster turnover from a year ago might not be an upgrade in talent, but it’s certainly an upgrade in pure athleticism.
The Suns want to run and since trading for former Clipper guard Eric Bledsoe announced that they’d form the team’s identity around him and returning point guard Goran Dragic. Monday night’s walloping of Maccabi Haifa made that vision look like a smart one as the duo blazed past the opponents for 38 points on 16-for-22 shooting and nine assists.
“It’s funny when you have two guys who can push the like that, everybody starts running because if they don’t, they’re going to be back on the defensive side the whole time,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said.
It was the first bit of evidence of how the two point gaurds will play together. And though it’s hardly complicated, Monday’s preseason opener was a good sign considering the chemistry between them. Of Dragic and Bledsoe, the closest to each rebound called for an outlet while the other shot up the court. On one such play Dragic found Bledsoe for an alley-oop layup.
“Good basketball players know how to play with other guys in terms of what works best,” Hornacek said. “They seem to have a good little relationship there where they’re on the same page already, which is nice.”
At the end of last season, Dragic wished for the Suns to find him help on the perimeter. He was ineffective, or at the least, overworked as the only playmaker in 2012-13. Now he has one of the more athletic guards in the league running with him.
Dragic remains the true point guard as the more experienced player and the one who proved this summer with the Slovenian national team he can manage a team.
“I’m growing as a person, as a husband and a father now,” said Dragic, who is expecting his first child. “It’s going to be something new. Five years ago …(I was a) lost kid from Europe, didn’t speak English, shy. That’s the ways of life. You learn new things. I feel more comfortable, Phoenix feels like hometown.”
Even in the halfcourt, the Dragic-Bledsoe backcourt could pay dividends. As the Suns implement more complex parts of Hornacek’s offense, there are sure to be breakdowns. But there won’t be a rush to add more and more to the offense. Phoenix’s offensive execution was satisfactory in the eyes of Hornacek in the preseason opener.
“A lot of it, it ends up in the pick-and-roll,” he said. “We have Goran and Eric to handle that; get into some 4-on-3 situations and break them down in the pick-and-roll. We find that if we have a hard time executing, we can go to that pick-and-roll.”
Yet, Hornacek’s main worries start on the defensive end. While Phoenix has Marcin Gortat, rookie Alex Len and others as the anchors in the middle, the point guard’s aren’t lost on defense being a big part of their leadership roles.
It’s not necessarily Dragic’s forte. But it could be argued that Bledsoe’s defense is well ahead of his offense, even if he’s forced to defend larger shooting guards. Bledsoe knows he and Dragic will need to set the tone on that end as well.
“We have to be more vocal, and especially having a young team,” Bledsoe said. “Gortat, you know, probably him and Shannon (Brown) are probably the veterans on the team – still, the leadership comes from the point guards because you have the ball most of the game. On defense it starts from the point guard.”
Bledsoe backed it up against Haifa, recording five steals. Hornacek played with the NBA’s all-time career leader in steals, but the former Utah Jazz guard knows that Bledsoe’s defense is different from that of John Stockton, who had 3,265 takeaways in his career.
“You know, Stockton used to get a lot of steals because he knew how the plays were going, great positioning,” Hornacek said. “Eric gets them in a different way – strength. He takes the ball out of guys’ hands, he’s very quick so when they try to run handoffs around him, he gets a hand on the ball.”
It’s a two-pronged attack and for the first time since the Jason Kidd days – Kidd is second behind Stockton with 2,684 career steals – Phoenix’s points guard will attempt to dictate both sides of the court.
“Defense wins games,” Bledsoe said. “We have to get stops in order to get out in transition and run.”
Added Dragic: “We want to play at a fast pace, try to be the old Suns and try to score as many points as we can.”