PHOENIX – Once the word got out about the Phoenix Suns, opponents stopped over-looking them. Once there was a sufficient amount of tape on Jeff Hornacek’s team, the Suns needed to react.
That they have done.
Since Eric Bledsoe went down with a knee injury, it became apparent the offense put too much on point guard Goran Dragic. The Leandro Barbosa signing helped, but in the end, Hornacek needed to do more than rest his Slovenian point guard. He needed to set up and help his role players.
What they were doing with Bledsoe wasn’t going to fly. And what they were doing was shooting a lot of three-pointers.
“We got to know what teams are trying to take away,” forward P.J. Tucker said. “Strong-suits, trying to run us off the line. A lot more of our threes are contested now, even though they’re good looks — a little tougher. We got to change our scheme. Make them change up, too.”
The Suns took a little while to get away from playing like Bledsoe was there. Thirty games in 2013 saw Phoenix take 25.9 three-pointers per game and knock down an impressive 37.3 percent. In the first seven games without Bledsoe in 2014, Hornacek’s squad cranked up 29.1 threes per game – it was the only shot available – but only hit a third of those attempts.
Now, the NBA’s most prolific three-point shooting team changing things up.
In the last two games, both at U.S. Airways Center, Hornacek has preached driving to the hoop and attacking mismatches, whether they be Kendall Marshall in the post or Dirk Nowitzki in the pick-and-roll. The Suns scored a whopping 64 points in the paint and added 37 fastbreak points on Wednesday in a 121-114 win against the Los Angeles Lakers, then came back with 60 points in the paint and 20 fastbreak points on Friday in a 110-107 loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
The Suns went 7-for-22 from three-point range against Dallas, yet Dragic maintained that they “settled too much.”
The Suns have gotten away from their attacking mentality for stretches.
Against the Mavs, the Suns found themselves behind 86-78 early in the fourth quarter. The Morris twins rattled off four straight threes, two of which were makes, before Dragic missed two more shots beyond the arc with only a Tucker layup thrown in there.
“We were getting the layups, getting the easy shots,” Hornacek said. “Continue that. (We have to) not figure you’re going to get it back in one hero play. Hopefully they learn on that. We’ve lost a few games because of it.”
Even Phoenix’s two-most prolific three-point snipers, Channing Frye and Gerald Green, have been in on the two-point shooting efforts. Against the Lakers Frye struggled by going 1-for-6 from deep yet he still scored 20 points.
The Mavs game-planned for him well.
In the pick-and-roll game, Dirk Nowitzki and the other Mavs did well covering Frye, who finished with six points and just six shot attempts. Dallas showed hard against Dragic coming across screens, pushing the point guard too far out, which allowed the Mavs to recover on Frye. When the Suns adjusted by making Frye roll, they couldn’t complete a pass.
“If you’re playing it that way and you roll hard and you get one or two of those, then all of a sudden they have to get out (on the three-point pops),” Hornacek said. “We never got that one or two.”
Carlisle moved Nowitzki around defensively, and Hornacek hinted the Suns weren’t quite picking up on what mismatches to attack once that happened. The communication between bench and point guard, and between point guard and his teammates, could improve.
But in the end, Phoenix’s offense still put up 107 points without Eric Bledsoe, without Leandro Barbosa and with Channing Frye and Gerald Green combining for 18. It was a huge help that Marcus and Markieff Morris poured in 36 points off the bench, of course.
Compounding the Suns’ lack of three-point shooting, just 41 combined attempts over the last two games, is that they’ve only hit 27 percent in that span. But they see the three-point shooting woes as a short-term issue. They’ll get their touch backs once teams have to adjust to all the scoring in the paint.
“It’s waves, it’s waves,” Tucker said. “We have to keep playing, keep shooting. Most times we lose, it’s on our D.”
And with a 3-6 record in January, it really does just come down to the nitty-gritty. The Suns have a point differential of -0.1 this month.
A weird ending
The Suns somehow ground out a final possession against Dallas that could have forced the game into overtime. With 6.7 seconds left after forcing a turnover on Dallas’ own inbound, P.J. Tucker inbounded to Goran Dragic from under the hoop. The looping point guard drew Tucker’s man, Shawn Marion, and Tucker quickly went to his favorite spot in the right corner.
Dragic found him, Tucker’s shot spun out, but it probably wouldn’t have mattered much anyway – Tucker’s toe was on the line.
“Me and Goran talked, we knew that once he attacked, Shawn would have to react to it,” Tucker said. “Just one of those days, man. I was already celebrating because it did everything but go down.”
So about those jerseys …
Goran Dragic is still not a fan. He won’t be until the Suns win donning orange and sleeves.
“I was a little bit skeptical before the beginning,” he said. “Then when you get on the court, you’re so much zoned in, you just forget it. I think it’s a good look, something new. So far they are not lucky jerseys for us.”