Posted by Kevin Zimmerman on April 7th, 6:00 am
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.
“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.
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Tags: Goran Dragic · Oklahoma City Thunder · P.J. Tucker · Phoenix Suns Analysis
Posted by Kevin Zimmerman on April 6th, 9:26 pm
PHOENIX – The Suns aren’t dead yet.
Arguably and in the moment of a 122-115 win on Sunday, they’ve never been so alive.
Phoenix has a mighty hill to climb — the Grizzlies lost to fall to ninth and the Mavericks won to separate in their seventh-place spot on Sunday — but it was the Oklahoma City Thunder who might have the most to worry about. A top-tier Western Conference squad like the Thunder wouldn’t survive playing the defense it did in their loss at U.S. Airways Center, while the confident and loose Suns have a solid shot at the postseason if that type of performance recurs in the remaining five games of the season.
Scott Brooks’ team allowed the Suns to gun their way to a win on 58 percent shooting from the floor and 68 combined points from Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Gerald Green.
Phoenix took just 23 threes but drilled 11, a result of confidence but also pickiness in chasing the right opportunities.
In the second quarter after going scoreless through the first 12 minutes and missing his first three shot attempts, Dragic went to what made the Suns so successful in their Friday win against Portland. He went 8-for-10 in the second quarter to score 19 points, first dipping his way past Reggie Jackson or Westbrook, then taking his game to beyond the three-point arc.
It also helped the Suns were the bigger team, for one chunk finding Green with Derek Fisher on his back and Markieff Morris being defended by Caron Butler.
Phoenix held a 38-29 lead minutes into the second quarter and again hit the nine-point advantage with less than four minutes to play at 52-43. The Suns led 62-53 at half and build a lead as big as 14 points in the third.
Just as the Clippers did last Wednesday, Oklahoma City wasn’t going to fold.
Hornacek worried about sounding like a broken record against Los Angeles, but the Suns must have learned something from the last time their lead wilted. All night long, they bullied the Thunder with their bench unit, and it quickly got Oklahoma City in the penalty during the fourth quarter.
As usual, the man leading the physical Phoenix effort was P.J. Tucker, who scored a career-high 22 points, grabbed seven rebounds and added two blocks and two steals while holding — excuse the word choice — Kevin Durant to 38 points on 13-of-28 shooting.
It was a steal by Bledsoe on Durant that led to Tucker running down a ball with 43 seconds left. Tucker’s dive on the floor forced Fisher to foul to stop the game clock, and the two free throws giving the Suns a 117-112 lead secured their second-to-last home game of the year.
Dave Dulberg asked a few questions before the game, and here’s they were answered.
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Tags: Oklahoma City Thunder · Phoenix Suns Recap
Posted by Dave Dulberg on April 6th, 10:00 am
Time: 6 p.m. MST
The phrase must-win has become rather trite in professional sports because its usage is often applied regardless of the situation.
With that said, that is essentially what faces the Phoenix Suns over the remainder of their regular season. The race for the final two spots in the Western Conference has come down to three teams (Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies and Suns), creating a margin of error that is slim to none.
Lose a 17-point lead at home against the Los Angeles Clippers. Move on.
Overcome a double-digit deficit on the road against the Portland Trail Blazers. Move on.
The Suns’ treacherous April schedule doesn’t leave room for any rear-view window watching. Every game comes attached with one goal: Survive and advance.
Surviving against Sunday’s opponent, the Oklahoma City Thunder, won’t be a cake walk by any means.
Although the Thunder, one of the odds-on favorites to represent the West in the NBA Finals come June, are playing their third game in four nights, Scott Brooks and Co. still have their eyes set on the No. 1 seed.
A loss Sunday in Phoenix coupled with a San Antonio win would all but nix any chance for Oklahoma City to secure home-court advantage throughout the first three rounds of the postseason, so Sunday’s clash means plenty to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and friends.
Here’s a look at three questions that could go a long way in determining the outcome.
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Tags: Gerald Green · Oklahoma City Thunder · Phoenix Suns Preview
Posted by Kevin Zimmerman on April 4th, 9:45 pm
Jeff Hornacek must have gotten the message across.
Two losses to the Los Angeles teams in a row made the Phoenix Suns able to see the end of their season on the horizon, but at first against the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday, it wasn’t clear whether they’d be able to harness the urgency in the right way.
But the wildest of wild cards of all people did just that, and his teammates followed him. Gerald Green came out gunning early, and it might have been described as chucking. At the end of a 109-93 win for the Suns in the Moda Center, Green had 32 points in catapulting his team to a crucial win, especially with the Grizzlies and Mavericks also winning on Friday night and keeping ahead of the Suns in the standings.
The first 36 minutes was a back-and-forth affair, and somehow the Suns kept pace with the Blazers. Phoenix pushed the pace and the guards made it clear they had no intentions other than to drive the ball into the paint. Sometimes it got them into trouble.
Hornacek’s squad forced a lot, but it always came with aggressive and sure intentions.
Phoenix scored 24 fastbreak points to Portland’s six.
The only issue was that the Suns struggled to finish their many looks in the paint. In the first half, they got 25 shots in the paint but hit just 10, all while holding Portland to just 12 shots in the paint. By the end of the game, Phoenix got off 50 shots in the paint to the Blazers’ 30, outscoring them there 48-32.
Eric Bledsoe added 30 points, a few blocks and some offensive boards, and Goran Dragic added another 19 for the Suns.
Phoenix trailed 80-79 heading to the fourth quarter, but unlike the pivotal minutes against the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday, they didn’t shy away from the pressure. Green threw a lob pass to himself off the backboard for a dunk, then hit a transition three-pointer to cap a 7-0 Suns run in the first 2:08 of the fourth quarter, which gave the men in purple a six-point lead.
Green added 14 more points in the fourth quarter, Bledsoe scored 12 more, and Phoenix outscored Portland 30-13 while holding the Blazers to 31 percent shooting.
To the pregame questions from today’s game preview.
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Tags: Phoenix Suns · Phoenix Suns Recap · Portland Trail Blazers
Posted by Kevin Zimmerman on April 4th, 8:00 am
Time: 7 p.m. MST
TV: FOX Sports Arizona Plus
Just more than a week ago, the Portland Trail Blazers looked like they might find themselves in the same predicament that the Phoenix Suns are in as they enter the Rose Garden on Friday night. LaMarcus Aldridge was injured, and All-Star point guard Damian Lillard didn’t have his best pick-and-roll mate, or any for that matter.
It was bigger than that.
Portland didn’t have the All-Star forward its entire offense revolved around, and Terry Stotts’ team went 3-8 from March 7 through March 25. To be fair, the first four losses of that streak came with Aldridge playing, but the snowball effect was a threat until he returned.
Aldridge has returned and with him, winning has too.
The Blazers host the Suns Friday on a four-game winning streak and with enough motivational memories of losing to Phoenix.
The Suns, meanwhile, could be on the brink of losing their psychological advantage that came in the form of youthful ignorance. They have played loose all along, as if they didn’t know the significance of their success. That was the case on Wednesday against the Los Angeles Clippers, but a lackadaisical approach ended poorly in blowing a 17-point second-half lead to fall.
The worse news is that Phoenix’s two competitors for the final two playoff spots, Dallas and Memphis, have been there before. On Thursday night, Dallas built a 12-point lead against the Clippers with less than five minutes to play but let it slip down to two points in the final minute. Unlike Phoenix, Dirk Nowitzki and Co. closed out the win.
The Blazers have a 2.5 lead on sixth-place Golden State in the playoff standings but have enough motivation to play well just a game back of fourth-place Houston. Earning homecourt advantage against the Rockets would be important, of course, so that’s the carrot dangling in front of Portland.
It’s a wonder if the Suns realize just how big their carrot is — or if they can see it at all. Jeff Hornacek is likely laying the reality out for his inexperienced team, but it’s about to be too late for them to learn how to react.
What am I looking for in the battle between Phoenix and Portland?
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Tags: Phoenix Suns Preview · Portland Trail Blazers
Posted by Kevin Zimmerman on April 3rd, 6:00 am
PHOENIX — Doc Rivers had a fight even before he arrived to U.S. Airways Center on Wednesday. He battled traffic from the Diamondbacks game next door en route to the game and was late to his pregame media session. When he finally made it, Rivers joked that baseball and basketball shouldn’t be played on the same day.
Suns coach Jeff Hornacek took a little longer than normal to make it to his postgame media session. When he arrived, there were no jokes and look on his face wasn’t defeat but frustration.
Phoenix had fought blow for blow with the Los Angeles Clippers, but after 17 lead changes and 12 ties fell 112-108, taking not only a painful punch to the gut, but perhaps a wound deep enough to keep the Suns out of the playoff race.
And it wasn’t that Los Angeles didn’t overcome adversity beyond Rivers’ traffic troubles.
Blake Griffin gave it a go despite suffering from a back injury, and it was quite clear how much he was limited. It said a lot that Channing Frye eventually began trying to take the laterally-limited Griffin off the dribble, and when Griffin struggled to finish shots through contact.
Los Angeles overcame a depth-less roster, Griffin’s stiff back, two technicals and a 17-point lead in the third quarter. And that’s why Hornacek looked so pained.
“We’re telling (the Suns) at the timeout that we got to get the ball up the court quicker. We’re trying to run a play. By the time we got into the play there’s 13 seconds left on the shotclock,” he said. “Maybe that’s a conditioning thing for some of the guys. They’re not able to play the 40 minutes like some of these other guys.
“Looked like Chris Paul had all the energy in the world at the end of the game.”
It’s hard to take because the Suns know they have it in them.
This wasn’t a game because Phoenix was playing out of its mind. It was a playoff-style back-and-forth, and the Suns just couldn’t respond when their lead became a two-point deficit.
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Tags: Goran Dragic · Phoenix Suns Analysis