PHOENIX — It’s clear Goran Dragic and P.J. Tucker, holdovers from a failed regime, are two reasons the Phoenix Suns cling to the final Western Conference playoff spot with five games left on their schedule.
Dragic scored 19 second-quarter points to finish with a team-high 26 in a 122-115 win against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday night. Meanwhile, Tucker scored a career-high 22 on top of a fine defensive effort against Kevin Durant, who pumped in 38 but didn’t find easy looks in the critical minutes of a close game.
Dragic and Tucker are the faces and the outright leaders, but the character of the Suns as a team isn’t exactly that of either.
Phoenix Suns forward P.J. Tucker reacts after he picked up a lose ball and a foul against the Oklahoma City Thunder. pic.twitter.com/R5tFFk0NP6
— David Kadlubowski (@Davidkadlu) April 7, 2014
Phoenix thrives on Dragic speaking with his play and Tucker literally speaking loudly and often, but it goes deeper. Last Wednesday, Jeff Hornacek’s team was running football sets during pregame warmups, and huddles took on the energy of a confident and cocky high school team.
This wasn’t a scene out of More Than a Game, the documentary film that followed LeBron James through his high school years. This was the NBA, and the Clippers blew away a 17-point Phoenix lead to remind the Suns of it.
Friday while visiting the Blazers and Sunday against the Thunder, something clicked.
“It’s great to say we’re learning,” Hornacek said Sunday, then stomping all over that idea. “Clippers made plays the other night. We had guys make plays tonight.”
This team hasn’t exactly taken Tucker’s borderline moody, aggressive personality, or Dragic’s more reserved but just as passionate approach. Instead, Phoenix plays with a playful exuberance that’s almost ignorant to the situation. Tucker suggests it’s a positive thing.
Those high school huddles mean the Suns are having fun. At the least, they’re together, something winning teams — sorry, Pacers — can’t all say.
“Everybody knocks us, they talk about when we lose or we have bad games that this is a young team and all that stuff,” Tucker said. “You all know, you guys write it. In these games right here, it’s the same thing. We’re a young team. It rolls right off our shoulder. We get to the next play, we yell at each other but we’re friends. We’re teammates but we’re friends. It’s a weird group. Being a young team is also an advantage for us.”
Being young is good. It’s on record.
Tucker is playing for a contract, but neither he nor anybody else on the Suns seem to be thinking at a business level. It’s hard to remember the last time someone used that word, “business,” which is often the word used to duck a difficult question.
The only times contract discussions come up are when Tucker’s free agency is thrown out there — nobody bothers to ask anyone player whether they want Eric Bledsoe to be back, because media members assume it’s a unanimous ‘yes.’
“I’ve always said, hopefully he’s going to stay here a long time,” Dragic said of Tucker. “He’s such a warrior.”
The relatively old guys know that this is a business.
The Suns, aside from Dragic and Channing Frye, are just playing for something they don’t know about but want to experience — the playoffs. Think the Suns in control of the current situation could care less about whether they get the 14th overall draft pick opposed to the 21st? By the way, in a deep enough draft and with additional picks to move about, that’s about the difference between T.J. Warren and T.J. Warren.
Get it? It’s not much.
What about Sunday, then?
With the Suns leading 113-112 on Sunday and a minute remaining, Russell Westbrook fell to the ground as Phoenix gathered a rebound, and when he finally retreated matched up against Markieff Morris. The Suns recognized the mismatch and went right at the Thunder guard in the post to draw a foul leading to two made free throws.
The Suns led 115-112 heading to the next play.
Kevin Durant drove left, spun back toward the middle of the court and found himself dribbling into a waiting Bledsoe.
“Sometimes you got to play on your instincts,” Hornacek said. “Sometimes it’ll be wrong. But I think Eric has those instincts, he sees how things are going to develop. He takes, I guess I call them calculated risks. A lot of times they pay off. That’s his knowledge of the game, understanding what he can and can’t do. Those are two big plays that helped us win that game.”
Though Bledsoe was blocked on his layup attempt going the other way, P.J. Tucker chased down the loose ball, was fouled by Oklahoma City guard Derek Fisher and flailed on the ground with glee in the defining moment for the uniquely-unrestrained and youthful Suns.
“I have no idea what happened. I don’t recall any of that,” Tucker said afterward when asked of his emotional display. “That stuff is just raw emotion.”
Nobody is playing for contracts in the traditional sense. This isn’t a business in the Suns’ minds but a raw fight to stay alive.
We knew that already. But what we didn’t was that the Suns still aren’t the Cinderella story that eventually found reality. They think beating the Western Conference’s second-best team for the second time in a row is the truthful reality.
“We’ve talked about that these last 10 games of the season is really going to show a lot about our players, whether we get into the playoffs or not,” Hornacek said.
“Kevin Durant plays 43 minutes, their best player, Westbrook plays 34 — I know they’ve been trying to limit his minutes,” he added. “Everybody’s trying to win at this point. It was a good test for us and one these guys passed.”