The Phoenix Suns know they have a good basketball team - so much that the 6th-seeded team is even talking about the playoffs already. Yet talk of the playoffs is being used more as a warning than a fight song.
With more than a third of the season in the books and an 18-11 record to show for it, the talking points for the Suns have changed. All off season and early in the regular season, Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said he was looking for continued improvement and growth from the team, rather than wins vs. losses. Now? Hornacek has added one more argument to that mantra.
"We're at the point that if we have any hopes of making the playoffs, they gotta buckle it up," Hornacek said after the Suns played another lackluster defensive game against the talent-challenged 76ers. "They played soft in the first half."
Hornacek went on to say that after 29 games, the Suns have established who they are as a team and that the team is playing at playoff caliber levels. However, that carrot may be more of an orange-colored stick. He says they have a lot of work to do to compete when other teams start playing harder as the season goes along.
Goran Dragic said, after beating Philadelphia by 14 points, said that it's a good sign the team can win comfortably despite not playing well.
"The good teams, even if they don't play good they find a way to win the game," Dragic said. "We did that tonight."
All the players have noticed that teams have begun preparing for what the Suns can bring, devising game plans to defeat the two point guard lineup.
"They are preparing for us. Every night is tougher," he said. "They know what the strengths are, and they try to take that away. At the beginning of the season, they thought it was going to be easy. Not so much anymore."
After getting shocked by the Suns two weeks ago, Golden State's Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson came out focused and ready to avenge that loss on Friday. And then against Philadelphia, they faced Philly's own version of a two point guard lineup for much of the game. Rookie Michael Carter-Williams and second-year player Tony Wroten combined for 49 points in the loss (albeit on an inefficient 45 shots).
As the season wears on, the two point guard lineup that accounts for nearly 40% of the Suns scoring and most of their assists and steals will be schemed against better and better. Whether those schemes work is up to coach Hornacek, Dragic and Bledsoe, largely, but the Suns have to bring something else to the table when the schemes work.
It's on defense where the Suns will have to make their mark.
While Miles Plumlee continues to prove he's not a flash in the pan thanks to his boundless energy and athleticism to make a difference under the basket, the Suns are really going to struggle on the defensive end when games get tougher.
Currently, the Suns are 15th in defensive efficiency - smack dab in the middle of the pack - which only gets you so far. Even the vaunted mid-aughts Suns, armed with the league's greatest offense, eventually foundered in the playoffs when they couldn't get stops at key times.
Some of that will improve with the players on hand. Eric Bledsoe and Miles Plumlee, in particular, still tend to go for the big play more often than the coaches want, and too often get burned for it. Both are discovering their NBA ceiling this season right before our eyes with expanded, consistent minutes.
Last night, Plumlee injured himself going for a block that he "probably shouldn't have. The guy was too far away." In the effort, Plumlee sold out and lost his footing, crashing hard to the ground. As a result, not only did he miss the block, he wasn't available for the rebound if it bounced AND he took himself out of the game for a while as he got 7 stitches.
Eventually, they will settle down and realize an NBA game is won on 48 minutes of intelligence rather than the biggest plays.
"Settle down!" Spurs coach Gregg Popovich once yelled at Manu Ginobili, during a first half timeout in a pivotal playoff game against the Suns. Ginobili had just gone supernova for a few minutes, mostly in a good way for the Spurs, but had committed a couple of bad turnovers in the process. "The game isn't won in the first half!"
But some of the Suns deficiencies won't disappear with experience. The current Suns 8-man lineup is really small, and a little light on defensive chops.
"P.J. [Tucker] does a good job defensively but we can't have P.J. guard everybody," Hornacek said of halftime adjustments to slow down rookie MCW and forward Thaddeus Young. "If we could clone P.J. and have three or four of him to play in the fourth quarter it would help defensively. But these other guys have got to step up defensively like P.J. does."
Where the Suns struggle the most, though, is closing out possessions with rebounds. The Suns are one of the worst teams in the league at giving up second-chance points (more than 15 points per game). Unless Miles Plumlee and 6'11" Channing Frye are on the court together, the Suns have a major size deficiency.
It would help if either 7'1" rookie Alex Len (ankle) or veteran defensive ace 6'11" Emeka Okafor (neck) could get healthy enough to slide into the backup center spot behind Plumlee for even 10-15 minutes a night.
Alex Len has been held out of all basketball activity for a month now, trying to rehab that surgically repaired ankle and return at 100% health. Per Paul Coro of azcentral.com, Len is working out without pain and is close to returning to Suns practices - maybe in the next week or so.
Emeka Okafor has been a ghost since being acquired in October for Marcin Gortat, but that was by design. Okafor is rehabbing a neck injury without surgery, with his own specialists back east. The injury was serious enough that Okafor is not even performing any basketball activities while trying to get healthy.
The last word on the street is that Okafor will get re-evaluated in January by the Suns staff to check his progress. There have been no indications from either Okafor's camp or the Suns that the veteran center will be healthy enough to play at this time.
Whether the Suns get one or both of those centers back for the stretch run is a mystery, but if the Suns hope to do any damage in the playoffs another defensive presence in the lineup would be really helpful.