The disappointment was all over Jeff Hornacek’s face as the final horn sounded. In a game that would have forced the NBA to take the Suns’ winning record seriously, Phoenix fell just short succumbing to Tony Parker and the Spurs 99-96 in San Antonio. Phoenix hung with last year’s Western Conference champs for all 48 minutes thanks in part to stellar bench performance highlighted by Markieff Morris’s 23 points and 12 rebounds. The Suns reserves played incredibly fast in the first half, turning an eight point deficit into a nine point lead in under eight minutes in the second quarter. The Morris twins were a stellar off the bench tandem for the second game in a row, a revelation which is certainly one of the highlights of Phoenix’s first road trip this season. To break down the game further, let’s answer Kevin Zimmerman’s three preview questions.
Just how good is Eric Bledsoe on defense?
The matchup between Eric Bledsoe and Tony Parker was a 48 minute war. Bledsoe won the battles in the first three quarters, holding Parker to just five points on 2-of-8 shooting. Eric was efficient offensively, scoring 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, but had just two assists in the first 36 minutes as the Suns’ starters struggled against the Spurs’ best five. In the first three frames, Parker was passive and content to throw the ball into Tim Duncan, who was dominating Miles Plumlee in the paint. With Parker distributing, the Spurs offense got easy bucket after easy bucket, making the Suns’ defense, which was Top 5 in the NBA heading into tonight’s game, look very, very average.
The dynamics of the point guard war completely shifted in the fourth quarter however. Both teams brought their starters back with about eight minutes to play. Duncan was gassed, so the Spurs’ offensive focus shifted to Parker. Poppovich wanted him to score and score he did. Parker dropped 15 points in the final frame, hitting all seven of his shots. It’s not clear if Bledsoe was tired, concerned about keeping the Suns close in a tight game, or simply not ready for Parker to unleash himself, but whatever the case, Eric was no match. Parker got to the rim with ease, ran Bledsoe around screens, and beat him for a layup off a late inbounds play that put the Spurs up 99-96. Bledsoe was scoreless in the fourth. He had been Phoenix’s valiant closer in the last two games, but tonight he could not find his shot down the stretch. Bledsoe did have three assists in the fourth including a beautiful pick-and-roll lob over a Duncan-Parker double team which Plumlee dunked with authority. Bledsoe made Parker work all night long, but ultimately the Frenchman won the war and showed Bledsoe that he still has a ways to go as both an aspiring elite point guard and team leader.
What pans out with backup point guard spots?
Ish Smith was excellent again, showing off his speed on nearly every possession he was on the floor. While he was not as prolific against the Spurs as he was Tuesday night in New Oreleans, his speed spurred an incredible effort from the second unit that kept the Suns in the game and kept the Spurs’ reserves on their heels. Smith finished with just six points and a single assist, but he definitely outdueled San Antonio’s Patty Mills who finished with only two points and three assists. Mills could do absolutely nothing to stay in front of Smith. The Suns are so young and so athletic 1 through 12 that having a speedy point guard to drive a very fast pace in the second unit will be a huge asset all season long.
Can Miles Plumlee score big against a solid gameplan?
Just as it was between Bledsoe and Parker, in tonight’s game Tim Duncan played the master and Miles Plumlee played the student. For the first three quarters, Duncan put on a clinic against Phoenix’s second-year center. Tim scored seemingly at will in the paint, putting on an offensive clinic worthy of the Big Fundamental moniker. Plumlee was little better than a folding chair defensively in the first three frames, though he did do a good job of staying out of foul trouble. Plumlee’s problem, which he will see very clearly when he watches this film, was his positioning. He allowed Duncan to get position on him every time the Spurs swung the ball. In the future, he’ll engage and battle earlier. Everytime Duncan caught the ball, Plumlee gave him the baseline which is a defensive no-no especially in the paint.
On the offensive end, Duncan played ten feet off of Plumlee any time Miles caught the ball at the high post. It was clear Plumlee was a bit out of his depth being guarded by the future Hall of Famer. He did manage eight points in the first 36 minutes however, including a Duncan-esque 15-foot banker.
Though he definitely struggled early, credit goes to Plumlee for keeping his confidence up and his head in the game because when he and Duncan both returned to the court in the fourth quarter, the power had noticeably shifted. Duncan was dog tired. His jumper was short. He wasn’t battling for position. And he was more than content to watch Parker zoom around the court. When the Suns had the ball, Duncan’s exhaustion allowed Plumlee’s young legs to carry him to seven points. Plumlee’s three baskets were all crucial to keeping the Suns close as Parker and the Spurs tried to pull away. In the end, Duncan probably gets the W because of the damage he did early, but Plumlee refused to be knocked out and made this a close one in the end.