Both the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets are on warm (not hot) streaks as they face each other to start a home-and-home series around the Thanksgiving holiday.
Tonight the Phoenix Suns face the Denver Nuggets (7:00 pm AZ time on FoxSports Arizona (TV) and ArizonaSports 98.7 (radio)) in a game featuring two teams outside the Western Conference playoff race despite winning 9 of their last 10 games collectively.
The Nuggets have won five straight games and the Suns have won four of their last five, but neither team would be in the playoffs if they started today. On the year, the Nuggets are only 7-7 while the Suns 9-6 record isn't good enough to be in the West elite.
Still, the Suns 9-6 start is their best since 2009 when they started 12-3 in the first 15 games of their last playoff season. With 3 of their next 4 at home, the Suns have a chance to build on their hot start before the schedule gets tougher.
With a five-game winning streak, you might think the Denver Nuggets have righted their ship and are on the verge of a long-awaited playoff-type season.
The Nuggets five wins are against the Cavaliers (join the club!), OKC Thunder (join the club!), Pelicans (that's a good one), Lakers (meh) and last night against the Rose-less Chicago Bulls. But hey, that's a tougher sked than the Suns have faced in winning four of five, so hat's off to the Nugs.
The key for the Nuggets is defense. When they lost six straight games earlier this month, they gave up 102+ points in each game with two of them at 130+. In their five game winning streak, they surrendered 100 or less in four of them. Last night, they gave up 109 to the Rose-less Bulls but scored 114 of their own to win the game.
P.J. Tucker could be this year's Channing Frye. Yep, I said it. It makes no sense, but I said it anyway.
Somewhere along the Suns 6-game road trip, P.J. suddenly appeared as the pick man in the high pick-and-roll where he's the one curling out of it to the top of the arc awaiting the kick-out pass while the point guard is sizing up the D. He's made at least four catch-and-shoot threes from that play in the last two games and looks comfortable enough to become a regular.
The pick-and-pop partner is a must-have in the Suns' offense. It's the perfect antidote to the NBA's favorite ICE defense against the traditional pick and roll that all teams use to prevent the roll and/or drive to the basket. The Suns perfected it last year with Frye, but have struggled with Markieff Morris passing up too many shots and Anthony Tolliver never finding his rhythm or range.
P.J.'s ability to set a good screen (check), roll out to the three-point line (check) and catch-and-shoot in rhythm (check, so far), might just earn him his starting spot back in the lineup and save Goran Dragic's season all at once.
The Phoenix Suns had Denver's number all last year, sweeping them cleanly in four straight. But that doesn't necessarily mean anything. The awful 2012-13 Suns had Memphis' number, but the more-talented 2013-14 Suns were awful against the Grizz.
Can the Suns reprise their record against the Nuggets this season? On the plus side, the Nuggets still have Brian Shaw as their coach, a guy who just doesn't know how to make the most of his roster. They are a run-n-gun roster with a defense-oriented coach. The Suns' pace is so enticing that the Nuggets players fall into the trap of running and just can't keep up.
While the PG matchup (Ty Lawson vs. the Hydra) will be fun to watch, the biggest worry for me is Danilo Gallinari. He's been pretty bad this season so far for the Nuggets, but his ability to catch-and-shoot threes can kill the Suns. Gallinari was their best player in the preseason matchup in October, and if he's their best player tonight the Suns are in trouble.
Out on a limb
At some point in this young season, last year's scoring leader Goran Dragic will lead the team in scoring. My guess is tonight. After Dragic deferred to IT and Bledsoe on Monday, expect Hornacek to reward him with big minutes tonight against Denver. I see Dragic having 20+ and 6+ assists for the first time all season. Boom.
The score will be high, and the Suns will win this one handily.
The podcast makes it's triumphant return with a new host at the helm. Unfortunately for all of you... that new host happens to be me. Listen anyway, as Dave King saves the show with great insight and acumen about all things Phoenix Suns.
The good news is the podcast is back.
The bad news is that I'm taking snaps as the new host.
Dave and I discuss a variety of subjects in this installment including... our takeaways from the Suns six game road trip, the emergence of Alex Len, the struggles with playing time and roles among the team's top four guards, the disappearing dragon, Jeff Hornacek, the week ahead, Thanksgiving traditions and the Territorial Cup.
All of that crammed into 45 minutes of radio rapture.
Thanks again to Kris Habbas for all of his hard work and routine excellence as the previous host of this podcast. You're the man, Kris.
Markieff Morris loves the Nuggets. Get in on the FanDuel tournament with promo code SBSUNS.
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If you are not already a member of FanDuel click here and you'll get a 100% first time matching deposit bonus ($200 max) to exclusive to SB Nation readers. Ok, now I'll help make you some dough.
The Suns have three games between now and Sunday. It's Denver in Phoenix on Wednesday and Phoenix in Denver on Friday, before Orlando comes out west this weekend.
Markieff Morris. Two of Keef's top three scoring games last season came against Denver. On November 8th, 2013 he logged a double-double, scoring 28 and collecting 10 rebounds. On December 20th, he went for 25 and 6.
P.J. Tucker. Tucker missed the bus in four games against Denver last season. He shot a combined 6 of 27 in four matchups with the Nuggets. Give him credit from the stripe though. Tucker hit 9 of 9 freebies and ripped down 11 boards on February 18th.
Goran Dragic. The Dragon's second highest assist total of last season (first was his 14 dimes against Denver) was the 13 he dished out against Orlando on November 24th. Dragic also shot the rock well against the Magic, going a combined 18 of 30 for 41 points across two games.
Eric Bledsoe. In his fifth game back from injury, Bled struggled against the Magic on March 19th. Shooting 3 of 11 from the field, his 7 points was his lowest total in a game in which he logged at least 17 minutes.
Ty Lawson. Lawson's third highest scoring game of last season came against Phoenix when he put up 29 on November 8th. January 14th he totaled 14 assists, also his third highest.
Nikola Vucevic. In his one full game against the Suns last season, Vucevic shot 10 of 16 from the field for 20 points to go with 10 rebounds.
Wilson Chandler. Last season Chandler shot just shy of 42% on the season. He was unable to reach that number in three cracks against the Suns. On January 19th he hit just 3 of 12 three point attempts. A month later on February he shot 4 of 15 from the field.
Victor Oladipo. Two of his worst shooting nights came against Phoenix last season. March 19th he shot 6 of 19 and 1 of 6 from behind the arc. That was better than his first game against the Suns, a 3 of 14, 0 of 4 performance on November 24th.
It's a no-brainer. I've at least put you in the top 15 with the above information alone. If you finish in first and pick any of these guys, let me get a little bit of that $8,000. To recap: 100% sign on bonus, hashtag #FanDuelSBN, let's see your lineup below. Good luck!
Phoenix Suns point guard Goran Dragic talks to a Slovenian reporter about the team, the changes and the rumours that have been surrounding him lately.
Phoenix Suns erstwhile point guard Goran Dragic made third-team All-NBA last season with a breakout year in which he set career highs for points per game (20.6), shooting percentage and three-point percentage. This year, he's been so far relegated to the shooting guard role on a team loaded with quality point guards.
But does that mean he's ready to leave Phoenix? Not so fast, skeptics.
"I don't know from where (this news came)," he said to a Slovenian reporter over the weekend, translated by our very own BSotS correspondent kajkejti, "I haven't said (anything) about that at all. It's mostly written by media. I feel very good in Phoenix, I have a lot of friends (here), family."
But you can sympathize with Dragic's struggles this season, and none of us would be surprised if Dragic at least listened to other teams before making a free agent decision next summer.
He was one of only a handful of NBA players last year to ever to put up 20+ points and 5+ assists while shooting 50+% from the field and 40+% on three pointers.
Then over the summer, while Goran and his brother Zoran led their Slovenian team deep into the FIBA World Cup, the Suns came around and signed his brother to a two-year guaranteed contract. Even before that, Goran was asked about his own intentions to re-sign with the Suns and made it sound like a high probability that he would stay in Phoenix long term.
But the Suns also re-signed point guard running mate Eric Bledsoe to a $70 million deal for five years and fellow PG Isaiah Thomas to a $27 million deal over four years to replace Ish Smith and form a three-headed "hydra" that on paper didn't look like it could work. Less than a handful of NBA teams in history have successfully employed a system like the Suns' are trying to create this season.
Color the PGs themselves as unsure how this will all play out. Dragic recently spoke to Slovenian media (translated by our own Kajkejti) about his role on the team this season. It isn't specified when the interview took place but our guess is either Friday or Saturday after the game.
"A lot of things have changed," Dragic said. "As you can see we have three play-makers, I'm playing mostly off the ball, I'm not that involved on the pick and roll which is my game. But this is part of sports, the team is playing well, so you have to make some sacrifices for the team. As long as it's working."
Markieff Morris has not shown the instincts to be a proper pick-and-pop player in the Suns system as Channing Frye's replacement because Morris doesn't feel comfortable hoisting several threes a game in a catch-and-shoot situation. Lately, Hornacek has discovered P.J. Tucker's ability to make those threes as the power forward in a smaller lineup. Tucker has hit a number of catch-and-shoot top-of-the-key threes in the past week, something the Suns' offense and Dragic in particular desperately need to spread the floor properly.
For now, they are winning games in a manageable season-opening schedule (ranked by b-ref as 16th toughest in NBA so far) but there hasn't been a night in which all three looked comfortable since the opening night win (they combined for 54 points) over the hapless Lakers.
A look at their raw stats shows that the three players almost are a carbon copy of each other.
Both Bledsoe and Dragic's numbers are slightly down from a season ago. Dragic says that's to be expected.
"Yes it's normal," he replied. "If you look at the other players, also Eric doesn't have the same numbers as last year. The team is more complete, we have more quality players - more players who can help on the court, the coach is taking advantage rotating players. I think (so :P) this is good, because we have 82 games, the season is long, so we try to stay as fresh as possible for each game."
Dragic and Bledsoe still play the most minutes and Dragic is shooting the best of all three overall (except for three-point %). But his assist rate (3.1) is the lowest of the three despite Thomas playing 7 fewer minutes per night. And when you look at the advanced stats, Dragic is having a lesser impact on the game than Bledsoe or Thomas.
While Thomas and Bledsoe each get to the line for free throws early half the time, Dragic does not. And each of Bledsoe and Thomas has a higher "true shooting" percentage which factors in threes and FTs.
Much of that is because Dragic is playing "off the ball" a lot more this season than either of the other two. Look at Dragic's "usage rate" - a measure of how often he finishes a possession with a shot or assist. He last of the three (21.9), which is in line with every other season of his except for last season's career high rate.
In fact, Dragic's season in general is paling in comparison to last year's Most Improved Player season in which he set career highs in nearly every category.
The Slovenian reporter asks him about the reports from the past week (about reporters saying he'll explore other options) and "if that is connected to the changes on the team"?
"No," he said, "I mean, I think everything is connected. But I'm not thinking about that yet and I don't know from where (this news came), I haven't said (anything) about that at all. It's mostly written by media. I feel very good in Phoenix, I have a lot of friends (here), family.. When the season ends, I'll think about it, just put all the cards on the table and see which option is the best. For now I really can't say more (about this)."
The reporter continues to ask him about his comment on there being only one ball and if this is referring to there being overcrowding on the floor. Goran says it was taken a bit out of context, he was just replying to a reporters question on why the 3pgs haven't all had a great night together.
"But this is their (reporters) job," he said (insert cheeky grin), "to make the most interesting story and that people read it."
At the end he talks about Zoran Dragic, says he is training hard, but still has to wait for an opportunity since sadly all the games he was active were close.