It's All-Star weekend! The Phoenix Suns may not have a representative in the main event (cough bull@#$% cough), but that doesn't mean there isn't plenty to celebrate over the break.
Who thought the Suns would have 20 wins at this point in the season, much less 30? Widely viewed as one of the worst teams coming into this season, we are now proudly the fans of the NBA's biggest surprise this year.
"That's a really good team," LeBron James said last night after the two-time champs barely beat the Suns back. "The surprise of the NBA."
The Suns' success started in the off-season. Before the Miami HEAT had won their second NBA championship, Phoenix announced it was hiring Ryan McDonough as the organization's new general manager. A promising young executive, the 33-year old McDonough's hiring was considered a step in the right direction for a franchise floundering in the wake of 3 years of ineptitude that started with the departure of Amar'e Stoudemire and ended with the departure of Steve Nash and a 25-win season.
McDonough got to work quickly. Not content with 4th of July fireworks, the former Boston wunderkind made some noise of his own, trading fan favorite Jared Dudley and a second round pick to the Los Angeles Clippers for aging but steady vet Caron Butler and superstar-in-the-making Eric Bledsoe. This trade was seen as a coup for the Suns who immediately upgraded their depth at 2 positions while giving up a serviceable player, but not a foundation piece.
The new beginning got its start on the court in Summer League. New head coach Jeff Hornacek got his first NBA experience coaching a squad of rookies and young players in Las Vegas. While top draft pick Alex Len was still recovering from ankle surgery, that team crucially featured 3 prominent rotation players in P.J. Tucker, Marcus Morris and Markieff Morris.
In addition to those three, it provided Hornacek and McDonough the ability to evaluate new rookie Archie Goodwin, second-year point guard and former lotto pick Kendall Marshall, as well as current Sun and 14th man, Dionte Christmas.
I think it was crucial that as far back as July, the new coach was already getting core players to buy into his philosophy for the team. The seeds planted in Las Vegas are blooming nicely in the Valley of the Sun. Hornacek guided the team to a 6-1 record, with their only loss coming to the Golden State Warriors in the Summer League championship game. The Summer Suns' top 5 scorers from the pre-pre-season are all currently on the roster.
Whatever goodwill as a team legitimately trying to win the Suns might have earned with their Summer League success and acquisition of Bledsoe and Butler was quickly jettisoned with a series of trades beginning immediately after Summer League.
The roster overhaul continued with the trade of Luis Scola to the Indiana Pacers in what is now looking to be an incredibly lopsided trade in favor of the Suns. In exchange for the 33-year old Scola, the Phoenix Suns got a seemingly mixed bag of goodies including NBA and international journeyman guard Gerald Green and second-year center Miles Plumlee, who had only played 55 minutes in his entire career. The apparent prize in this trade was a low first-round draft pick as a thank you to the Suns for bolstering the Pacers' bench while taking on a couple of superfluous spare parts.
A month later in late August, after featuring Butler at the Suns' new uniform fashion show, the barely ORNG forward was shipped off to his hometown of Milwaukee for what appeared to be more fringe NBA talent in 25 year-old point guard Ish Smith and 26 year-old back-up center Viacheslav Kravtsov.
The Suns followed up the Summer League success with a promising pre-season campaign. The upstart team notched a 5-2 record including wins over the Portland Trailblazers, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. While there were inklings this team might not be the dumpster fire pundits were predicting, very few people were ready to consider them anything more than a scrappy team that was going to play hard in a lot of losses.
In fact, if anything, the Suns were viewed as perhaps too good to properly tank with solid rotation players in the form of burgeoning stars Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, steady center Marcin Gortat, and a collection of veteran rotation players.
Any talk of the Suns being too good to tank was quickly hushed with the October 25 trade of Marcin Gortat, Shannon Brown and Kendall Marshall to the Washington Wizards for a rehabbing Emeka Okafor. What competitive team was going to swap three presumptive rotation players for essentially an expiring contract?
As far as the national media was concerned, this was the proof they needed that the Phoenix Suns were indeed in full-on tank mode. The race to the bottom started with the Suns and ended with the Philadelphia 76ers. These were clearly a pair of teams designed with the goal of the number one draft pick in mind.
Little did they know that Jeff Hornacek and Ryan McDonough had hid a Western Conference competitor in plain sight. Come back tomorrow for part 2 of this look back at the first half of Phoenix's Rise from the Ashes.
The Phoenix Suns fought and clawed, but LeBron James decided he was going to win the game. 36 points, 9 rebounds, 5 steals. Game over.
Signs the Phoenix Suns really wanted to win this game: Dragic got less than 2 minutes rest. It was the getaway game before a week off for the All-Star Break and possible roster changes due to trades. The coach and players really wanted to show the world they could hang with anyone.
The HEAT without Wade. The Suns without Bledsoe. Each team down one. Who wins?
The Suns won the first quarter. Tied the second. Tied the third.
Rocky vs. Drago.
The big, bad HEAT played stifling defense on Goran Dragic after his 8 first-quarter points.
LeBron James had a great game in all facets, pounding the Suns every chance he got with shots, dunks, steals and rebounds.
He must have thought, at some point, "they are like iron" as the Suns stayed close, even keeping the lead, during his efforts.
But then the Suns began to fold under the HEAT's pressure. The HEAT played tough, trapping defense and the Suns got themselves trapped into no man's land. When they missed, the HEAT ran out on breaks led by LeBron.
The Suns cut the lead to three a couple of times, but then LeBron took over again with jumpers and steals.
This was LeBron dialed in and ready to be the best player in the NBA. This was Miami's defense deciding to play stifling championship defense that's been missing for a long time.
Even Gerald Green's 25 points couldn't stem the tide, despite 20+ leading the Suns to ten straight wins.
Big up to Suns for fighting so hard in this game. Bigger ups to LeBron for being LeBron.
Drago wins this time.
The crowd was amped to start the game thanks to the Suns inspired play. It started by forcing a Miami miss and then Dragic drawing the foul on a quick double team at halfcourt. Once the Suns didn't lay down on that, they got their confidence.
Soon it was a 12-0 Suns lead thanks to three layup misses (two by LeBron) and 5-8 shooting by the Suns, including two three-pointers.
Miami called a quick timeout to gather themselves, then went on a strong run by forcing turnovers. LeBron missed the two free throws on a breakaway and then the Suns stopped the HEAT on the possession.
Miami called another timeout when the Suns had reached a 25-15 lead with 2:47 left to go. But the HEAT went on a 7-0 run to close out the quarter as the Suns went cold from the three-point line.
9 threes in the first quarter alone. Started hot, ended cold.
Suns by 3.
Miami really slowed the game down and the Suns second unit did not know how to respond. They missed a lot of outside jumpers.
Ish Smith got them back on point with a couple of fast break scores (a layup and an assist) before committing an offensive foul. Then Leandro Barbosa followed that with a fast break layup of his own.
The Suns had a 7 point lead before they reverted back to the Morrii shots and lost momentum. I really prefer Morrii who attack rather than dribble into a contested jumper.
When Miami pulled within one, the Suns had to bring back the Dragon. Still, the Suns struggled to make outside shots even though Miami was basically leaving shooters open to shoot.
But Miami's biggest defensive move was to try to suffocate Dragic with quick double teams while leaving Chris Bosh blanketed on Frye all night to take away two big threats. For the most part, the Suns struggled to score but Ish Smith found his way into some points as "the undefended".
The Suns defended well, for the most part, but let Miami guards drive all the way to rim way too often. Otherwise, the Miami offense really struggled.
Suns lead by 3 at halftime: 46-43
This looks to be a hotly contested game. One team is going to start making shots, while the other will continue to struggle. Who will that be?
The Heat usually make more than 50% of their shots, while the Suns are one of the better shooting teams in the league too. Something's gotta give.
In the second half, the Suns came out and made a couple shots but otherwise were not hustling while the HEAT came out on fire and made several shots in a row. Suddenly, it was a 5-point HEAT lead just 5 minutes into the quarter.
The HEAT were rotating Cole, Douglas and Chalmers with tight defense on Dragic to get the ball out of his hands, and it was working. Luckily for the Suns, Gerald Green picked up his shooting (like no one else on the Suns did) and scored 8 points to pull the Suns even with the HEAT three minutes later.
The Suns fought hard and found a way to take a 3-point lead into the fourth quarter.
A look into what the Suns are going up against tonight taking on LeBron James.
James is coming off arguably his worst game of the season posting 13 points on 4-13 shooting including 1-6 from behind the arc in Miami's loss to the Jazz on Saturday.
The man with the responsibility of trying to force James into two consecutive poor outings is Suns forward P.J. Tucker.
"He's strong, he's quick," said Tucker after morning shoot around about James. He's all rolled into one so you just gotta play. Most of the time big guys aren't fast and fast guys aren't big, makes it kind of double trouble. You gotta play him a little differently."
Phoenix head coach Jeff Hornacek experienced going up against an all-time player in Michael Jordan. The two squared off 20 times (regular season) with Jordan coming out on top in 12 of the 20.
"It's just a heck of challenge," said Hornacek on the opportunity to go up against an all-time great. "You're focused in, everybody is competitive, everybody wants to win the game and it's a great feeling when you can beat one of those top teams that has a great player on it."
James has faced the Suns 20 times in his career. He's hit the 40-point mark twice, 30 seven times, 20 nine times and in the teens twice. Coincidently LeBron compiled the same record against Phoenix, 12-8, which Jordan did versus Hornacek.
Phoenix has managed a 6-4 record vs. James when he has taken five three -point attempts or more. The problem with that angle is nine of those 10 games were when he was with the Cavaliers. When LeBron has attempted 10 or more free throws he has a 4-1 advantage.
Turning James into a jump shooter is far from a guaranteed win with how improved his shot has become over the years. Dealing with him shooting from outside as opposed to being a freight train to the front of the rim is the lesser of two evils and probably the best chance Tucker and the Suns have of slowing the four-time MVP down.