Dragic and Tucker lead, but youth defines Suns' character


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 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.

Or not.

“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.”

  • EBJM

    Thanks for not mentioning Frye!

  • Foreveris2long

    These guys play with so much heart it is incredible. It is also contagious. There is some similarity between the Suns and UConn in that they both are guard driven offenses, not deep in the front court and play with a chip on their shoulder. Ironically they both are coached by former NBA guards. Neither team believes they are Cinderella. The Suns know they belong and they will simply try to solidify their playoff run by winning 3 of the next 5 (including beating Memphis).

    IMO Gerald Green is almost an untraceable player this offseason. If his work ethic and relationship with Coach is what I think it is, he will keep improving this offseason. Him and PJ play with so much emotion, I think it elevates everyone’s play. The bench with the kids are having a party every night watching these guys put it in 5th gear.

    Win or lose this playoff qualifying experience is priceless and free agents to be are watching what is developing on Planet Orange. We are unintentionally attracting free agents while handling our business. The Suns young guns are going to work extremely hard this summer so they can be a part of this next season.

    This is special.

  • Foreveris2long

    Oops meant to say Green was almost an untradeable asset. Doggone WORD adopted its own word for mine. It is probably not a word but I am employing it anyway.

  • shazam

    great article

  • SJose

    What a win! The Dragon doesn’t back down from anyone! We just have to leave it all out there these last few games.

  • CarlyJoni

    Suns must continue to prove all the pundits wrong. Every analyst has them finishing out of the post season. Win these next road games and let Memphis/Dallas worry about making it. Great game against OKC. Now time to move on.

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  • EBJM

    Interesting article on NBA.com talking about sixth Man of the Year candidates. Markieff Morris leads a list of candidates in total efficiency. Second place is Taj Gibson. They are getting love over Jamal Crawford based on their overall contributions.

    Specifically Markieff is singled-out as making the Suns better defensively when he is on the court.

    In a list using their PIE stat, adjusting for pace and minutes they are both in the top ten while Crawford drops off.

    They again make the top ten in the on-off court stat, where Crawford sneaks back in at #9.

    For Most improved Player Miles and Gerald make the top eight in biggest increase in total efficiency but both drop off the list in biggest increase in PIE but Markieff shows up at #4. Brother Marcus ranks #18.

    With the Pacers late season slide combined with the Suns making the playoffs Tucker may be able to take Paul George’s All-Defensive 2nd team spot at SF.

    Suns get into the playoffs and I think Hornacek is a lock for Coach of the Year.

    Could be quite the post season accolades for a team supposedly tanking for the draft lottery.

  • EBJM

    The Mavs and Spurs play Thursday night and the Suns get the Spurs the following night, Friday. We all know Popovich is going to rest somebody, if not multiple guys against the Suns. Finally a break from the Spurs!

  • DZ

    The Suns have their destiny (this season) in their own hands. It’s good that the Suns play SA the night after they play Dallas but then the Suns have to play Dallas the night after they play SA. The Suns HAVE to win the games against NO and Sac and win at least one game against Dallas, SA and Memphis to make the playoffs… hopefully, if it’s only one of those three games that they win, it will be against Memphis. If they can win 4 of the final 5, I think they should at least make the 8th playoff seed.

  • BUTLER

    The last 2 games have been most satisfying. I would love to see the SUNS take on OKC in the playoffs.

    Tucker is incredible, Green was grand, Dragic masterful. Even if there’s no playoffs there’s a future.

  • the real al

    Imagine a first round playoff series between our Suns and the Thunder. THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is what us NBA fans want to see. Just a bunch of young, athletic freaks running and gunning, up and down the court, playing there tails off till the final second. Man, that would such an exciting series!!!

    And believe me, OKC doesnt want any part of this Suns team after losing to them for the second straight time in a month!

  • Rengaw

    I, too, want to see the Suns play the Thunder in the play offs. Westbrook might not be able to play all out in a tough series as I question if his knee is totally healed. If Westbrook can’t go full bore, Durant will have to average 40 a game for the Thunder to beat us.

    San Antonio, on the other hand, scares me with their experience and cleverness. And you know Pop will know how to exploit our weaknesses.

    This may sound strange because I am always on his case, but we need Frye to play well down the stretch. OK, we know he won’t play much defense or rebound. But we need him to start shooting really well as he does open up the inside when he is cooking. Unfortunately, he has not been shooting the ball well at all lately which gives the Suns no reason to keep him on the floor.

  • Dan S

    @DZ yeah agreed, if they beat NO, Spurs, Sac and then either Mavs or Grizzlies..those four wins should get them in!!

  • Rengaw

    Marcus Morris is a player we don’t talk about much, but he has had some really nice games for us over the season.

    He is one guy who can get hot and shoot the three ball well. I would much rather give Frye’s shots to Marcus, even though they don’t play the same position, but at least Marcus can do other things on the floor.

  • EBJM

    The heck with Frye, Suns are better than the Thunder when he sits and the Morri and Green play big minutes. Suns won because Hornacek only played him 18 minutes.

  • EBJM

    Actually against the Thunder Marcus plays a lot of PF with Markieff at center with a combination of Tucker, Green, Bledsoe or Dragic in the backcourt.

    The rest of the minutes upfront need to go to Plumlee.

  • BUTLER

    Nothing more pleasing than to see Tucker rip the ball from Derek Fisher’s hands.

  • Oz

    The Suns are freaking awesome to watch, not perfect by a long shot, but the hearts of lions. Plumdawg, has to get nasty and attack without fear of failure. Just love Green, man! He loves to ball. Dragon is wicked, P.J. Wild Man of Steel, Suns will smoke everyone coming up, I predict they will run the table to end the season.

  • DZ

    I was just looking ahead at the draft and our 3 draft picks this year. Even though the Minnesota pick will stay with them unless the 14th team in the draft gets very lucky and gets one of the top 3 picks (which would push Minn back to 14 and the Suns would get the pick this year), next year it is only top 12 protected. And in 2016 it is also top 12 protected but if it doesn’t convey that season then the Suns get the T-Wolves 2nd round picks in 2016 and 2017. Not great but at least the Suns will eventually get something and if Love leaves Minn then those 2nd rounders will both be fairly high.

    The Pacers’ pick is starting to look better and better this season. Still not great but it would be the 26th pick in the 1st round now instead of the 30th pick which it looked like it would be a month or so ago.

    Throw in the Wiz pick which will probably be #17 or #18 with the Suns’ own pick (anywhere between 14 and 22) and the Lakers’ 2015 pick (top 1-5 protected) and the Suns should have some real trading power this off-season and the next.

    I’m sure McD is working overtime to figure out how to turn all the silver assets that Phoenix owns now into gold in the future.

  • Foreveris2long

    DZ, I recently saw that J. Rose rated last year’s draft the 2nd worst in NBA history. It was ugly. The draft this summer will be a lot better even though I do not see any real superstars.

  • Foreveris2long

    DZ, I apologize because I got tied up and could not finish my thoughts. There are guys like Glen Robinson from Michigan and Payne from Michigan State who are going late 1st round or early 2nd. I do see a number of guys who could be NBA starters in 3 years. I just hope Mc D gets us another power forward who can board, defend and score in the low post.

    The draft is not deep at the 4 spot so any real upgrades will likely come from free agent acquisitions or trade. I would love if the Suns could secure G. Monroe (restricted free agent). Davis with Memphis, Bosh or Gasol may get some consideration if the price is right. If Antoni stays my guess is Gasol leaves.

    I think the Suns are going to be an attractive spot for free agents this summer so it will be up to McD to make the numbers work. I also think Bosh may leave Miami especially if they do not win it this year, to establish his own identity. However the price may be too high to consider him as a viable option.

    It will be a fun summer but with a very exciting backcourt, a young promising team with a very good head coach and GM along with golf weather environment, a lot of players will consider Planet Orange as a viable option.

  • EBJM

    Regarding that Wolves pick, it could go down as one of the worst trades in Suns history. To end up with two 2nd rounders, one in ’16 and one in ’17, four and five years later for a starting seven-foot center in his prime that is currently ranked #5 for his defensive impact using the new NBA player tracking data and sports season averages of 11/9/2/1 and is only just turned 26.

    Suns haven’t even kept a 2nd rd pick since Gani Lawal in ’10.

  • DZ

    The T-Wolves just can’t seem to get it together. Last year injuries were the reason (and they had a lot of them) but this year…

    If Love leaves before the end of next season the Suns can kiss any chance of ever getting a first round pick from Minnesota goodbye. But even a potential 1st round pick could be useful in a trade during the off-season. I don’t expect the Suns to hang on to the Minnesota pick long enough for it to translate into 2 second round picks.

  • foreveris2long

    EBJM, Today Lopez is looking better than Hibbert. He just keeps getting better along with D. Jordan who just exploded this season.

  • EBJM

    Robin improved his rebounding by three in one season and his blocking out has enabled Aldridge to increase his rebounding by close to three.

    That is simply incredible.

    But the biggest think is he has soft hands and can shoot the ball, something Miles, IMO, will never match.

  • EBJM

    Wow! Did you guys see MASON Plumlee block Lebron James dunk attempt with time running out to preserve the Nets victory?

    Mason was drafted #22 and starts at center with Garnett and Lopez injured.

    Suns can find somebody with those picks if they scout well.

  • foreveris2long

    EBJM, When I saw Robin at Stanford I always thought he would be a good pro. I just like his lateral foot speed and attitude on defense along with pretty decent offense. Plumlee isn’t bad but I doubt his ceiling is as high as RoLo’s.

  • hennerXrenneh

    Side Show Bob is as dumb as a doornail, though. When he was in Phoenix, he was given many opportunities but he showed inconsistency every single time. Im sure that had to frustrate the coaching staff. Alex Len reminds me of the RoLo situation. Maybe he breaks through that mold, or maybe he doesnt.

  • foreveris2long

    Patience HennerX, patience. It is difficult to comprehend someone from Stanford being dumb but I am not going to steal your thoughts. I have always said injuries early in his career were the the most troubling concerns for Lopez. The telling tale was when Gentry admitted that after Lopez had recovered it increased his vertical by 6 inches.

    Len also reminds me of Lopez and I think he will be at least as good and maybe better than Lopez. They both are long and have a mean streak with better than average lateral foot speed for a big man. I am very optimistic about Len.

    The Suns with 3 1st round draft picks with Len and Goodwin, should be the most exciting summer league team in Vegas. There are smiles everywhere on Planet Orange these days.

  • sunsn7

    Exciting times to be a Suns fan. Would still like for the Suns to acquire a high lottery pick this summer though.