Hey look in the desert air, it is a bird, it is a plane, no it is a... Oh, wait it is a plane full of birds. The PELICANS are in town for a re-match. What happens when a Pelican flies into a desert?
This game happened the other day in the bayou where the Phoenix Suns (4-2) took care of the New Orleans Pelicans (3-3) who are still trying to figure out how to swallow the fish they have collected, so to speak.
The first time these two teams faced off the Suns were out of their minds from three (6-12) by their standards.
The first time these two teams played the Pelicans were indifferent as a defensive unit (98.2 points per game) giving up 100+ in two out of three games.
So many things have changed. Since then the Pelicans are undefeated, college basketball has started, and another Thor movie has hit theaters. Things have changed and these two teams are very different since the first meeting. That was a little tongue in cheek, but in a few ways these are two different teams than they were just five days ago.
The Pelicans have won their last two games and, as a unit, are starting to fortify their defensive identity. The Suns have maintained their play begging the question: Is this Suns team for real?
It is early in the season, but these two teams look like they could both vie for a 6-8 seed in the playoffs. Again, this is very early to talk about the playoffs, but the Pelicans and the Suns have intangibles for good regular season teams. They are both scrappy defensive teams with young talent that competes nightly. Right now they each have rising stars, but neither has a superstar.
The first match-up was fun and the Suns came away with the win, they will look to repeat that formula again tonight.
(Recent) History Lesson
104-98, Suns Win
The history of the Pelicans and the Suns is short. For the Pelicans, they have a short history with every team in the NBA and no history with most. Once a Hornet, now a Pelican, either way they are a flying thing of a different name. They still sting the same.
In the first meeting Eric Bledsoe was unguardable and dominated the game (10-12 shooting) giving them a quality edge going into the fourth quarter where his heroics were not needed. More on that below.
Head-to-Head (past four seasons including Playoffs)
Suns: 97.9 PPG (6 wins)
Pelicans: 97.0 PPG (6 wins)
Whether it was Steve Nash v. Chris Paul battling for playoff seeding or more recently as two lottery teams trying to figure it out, the series has been dead even over the years. As of late the games have been more defensive struggles with the Pelicans/Hornets getting the better of the Suns, but this year the teams have each evolved. This series could remain dead even in the coming years, but with more entertaining games with young talent.
Head-to-Head (Snapshot of new point guards in new places)
Holiday: 13.7 PPG 7.2 APG 2.0 SPG 37.3 FG% (6 games)
Bledsoe: 20.5 PPG 7.3 APG 2.0 SPG 50.6 FG% (6 games)
While Holiday had an opportunity to be a starter and run his team out in Philadelphia, he, like Bledsoe, is in a new place running a new franchise. Through six games each of these point guards have their respective teams playing winning basketball.
The primary difference between the two; fourth quarter points. This season Bledsoe has been the closer and Holiday has not. Bledsoe has scored 50 fourth quarter points (8.3 per game) while Holiday has only scored 17 (2.8) in the final period, a total Bledsoe matched in one game this season.
C - Miles Plumlee v. Jason Smith
Potential Pelicans Inactives: Ryan Anderson (Toe, Questionable)
Frye vs. Davis
Even for his standards, Davis has been playing out of his mind these past two games. He is averaging 25 PPG 10.5 RPG 4.5 BPG 2.5 APG 2.0 SPG while shooting 53.1% from the field. Oh, and 16-20 from the free-throw line going head-to-head against the Memphis Grizzlies front-line and Pau Gasol in LA. where the Pelicans won both games. He is on another planet right now and the responsibility for slowing him down could be tasked on Frye.
Frye's ability to spread the floor as a shooter could be his best defense against Davis keeping his length out of the paint making plays as a shot-blocker and causing turnovers. Frye (and Markieff Morris, more on him below) will have to keep the pressure on Davis on the perimeter to water down his effectiveness like in the last game.
Interesting Stat: 22.7 PPG 9.0 RPG 4.7 FTA 68.3 FG% (3-Games)
That is the best three game stretch for Markieff Morris in his career at the NBA level. That stretch is current and started against New Orleans earlier this week. In the end the numbers will come back down to earth, but if they do not then the Suns have the 6th Man of the Year, Most Improved Player, and a Top 5 Power Forward on their bench this year all wrapped into one No. 11 Suns jersey.
Meaningless Stat: -11 First Quarter
On the road the Suns were down 17-28 after the first quarter, a trend on the road as they are -16 collectively in three games, but came back to win by six points against the Pelicans. That is a +17 swing in quarters two through four. The Suns are a different team at home starting off the first three games 3-0 with a +26 margin in the opening quarter. That start in New Orleans is meaningless, misleading stat.
Fans of the desert team are used to viewing defense as that intermission between offensive plays, but that should change this year as the Suns are playing an active, energetic defense that bring the crowd to it's feet all by itself.
The Phoenix Suns, picked by many as the worst team in the West, have come out of the gates sporting the league's 5th best defense after six games.
Sure, the sample size is small. But in the desert you learn to appreciate that glimmering pond of fresh water on the horizon whether it's really an oasis or not.
Suns fans are not used to seeing defense played so effectively. Rather, we are used to treating that half of the game as a necessary evil to get to the other end.
This year, though, the defensive end is a joy to watch.
"We want to run," point guard Goran Dragic says, "but we have to get the stops, get the rebounds first."
Well, duh. We've heard Suns teams beating that drum for about 45 years now but they have rarely turned that dream into a consistent reality.
Yet this season, the Suns' defense has helped the team to a 4-2 start, first in the Pacific division, on the back of the league's 5th-rated defense.
Again, take this with a grain of salt because of the small sample size. But the sample size is small for all 30 NBA teams and the Suns had more turnover - 10 players, an entire coaching staff - than most, so the 'continuity' argument goes out the window.
What I see on the court is aggressive defense on the ball handler, along with consistent rotations and even some really good second-level rotations (rotating to the rotating player's man).
For prior Suns teams, the latter rotation was always their achilles' heel, often leaving a weak-side three-point shooter or cutter. This year, you don't see a lot of open weak-side players free to create their own open shot. You see rotations that bottle up the other teams to the point that you wonder why they aren't passing enough, or executing well.
This will, of course, get tougher over the course of the season as teams' offensive efficiency improves like it always does. But the Suns offense (14th overall) will improve as well, and all you have to do is be a little better than the other guys each night.
"We have to make sure we get onto them and close out under control so they're not just driving by us and making extra passes," Hornacek said before the Denver game on Friday.
On a high level, the Suns defensive marks are pretty good.
Compare those numbers to last season and you almost have to laugh. Remember the times when the Suns were disgustingly giving up 42% on threes? Or 27th or worse year over year in rebounding?
While we all can see the aggressive nature of the perimeter defenders, we must also appreciate the defense being played in the paint. Opponents are not scoring will at the basket, and that can be attributed to paint defenders Miles Plumlee, Channing Frye and Markieff Morris.
Frye (40.5%), Plumlee (40.6%) and Morris (43.8%) are all among the Top 20 players in the league at defending the rim, among players getting at least 20 minutes per game and defending at least four shots at the rim. I used the filters to create an apples-to-apples comparison among regular NBA rotation players.
"We have [Plumlee] out there in position to take one or two steps and get a block or alter the shot," Hornacek said. "You put the guys in the right spots, but if they don't have the instincts they will be slow to close out. He does a great job of reading when to block the shot and when to not."
It all starts with having a shot-blocker in the middle.
"We're all about teamwork here. [Plumlee] feels if he goes for a block, that someone's going to get his man and block his guy out so he's comfortable with going."
Once the shot is up and the ball caroms off the rim, someone has to rebound it. The Suns are among the best in the league at grabbing that contested rebound (securing the rebound with a defender within 3.5 feet).
"They can't fall asleep," Hornacek said of team defense. "They know if Miles goes for the block, they have to crack down. There's going to be a miss and a loose ball somewhere, and they're anticipating that well."
In fact, P.J. Tucker is 6th in the league at contested rebound rate (an opponent within 3.5 feet of him) among those playing at least 25 minutes with at least 4 games played, grabbing 48.5% of them. Miles Plumlee is 12th (45.5%) and Markieff Morris is 53rd (30.6%).
These are just two of the new defensive numbers being made available this season by the NBA thanks to the league-wide use of the SportVu cameras. SportVu records every play from six different angles, allowing teams to aggregate the results and, in part, better define the "how" behind a quality defense that was never able to be tracked before.
As you can see, the Suns are doing the little things well that result in quality defense, which in turn results in gritty wins and helps the team maintain their poise under pressure.
Whether that continues or not remains to be seen, yet the principles instilled by defensive coordinator Mike Longabardi and the rest of the coaching staff are those that are usually sustainable over the long haul.
Welcome to the first weekly installment of the "Phoenix Suns Player of the Week" series. This new feature will replace the "Suns Weekly Player Rankings" from last season, which may have been a bit too comprehensive given the lack of quality talent on the roster at the time.
This new weekly feature will facilitate the ability to focus in on the players who really deserve the attention, while omitting those who are barely worth mentioning...At least until they earn their way into the list. This will begin with an examination of the top three candidates as determined by their play in the weekly games, and culminate with a winner based on not only stats, but also on their importance to the team...which is sometimes difficult to measure with numbers alone.
So without further ado, here is a look at the first three candidates:
Weekly Stat Averages:
Points: 20.5 FG%: .572 Assists: 8.25 Steals: 2.25 Rebounds: 3.75
Eric Bledsoe has been the highest scoring player on the team thus far, and also the most clutch with his ability to seemingly take over games in the 4th quarter, and put the team on his back when it matters the most.
In addition to leading the Suns in scoring, Bledsoe is also leading the team in assists and steals. Now that may change once Dragic is healthy and back in the line up, but there's no question that Bledsoe has been everything the Suns could have hoped for and more.
Weekly Stat Averages:
Points: 18.4 FG%: .583 Assists: 2.0 Steals: 1.5 Rebounds: 7.5
Just when Suns fans were ready to give up on Markieff Morris after starting his third season with the same inconsistent play that he exhibited in his first two seasons, Markieff suddenly rose from the ashes this week with very impressive play off the bench that included less jump-shots, more dunks, and an aggressive, physical style of play.
Markieff played the best game of his career this week in San Antonio going 11-13 from the field and tying his career high with 23 points...but he wasn't finished. In the very next game, he went 10-13 from the field and got to the line frequently where he shot 7-8 for a new career high of 28 points, to go along with his 10 rebounds, 3 steals, and 2 assists. This was the best week in Markieff's young NBA career, and he made a huge difference for the Suns with his new-found style of big-man basketball.
Weekly Stat Averages:
Points: 10.75 FG%: .480 Blocks: 1.25 Rebounds: 6.75
Not only do the Suns appear to have a new fan favorite in town with Miles Plumlee, but he is proving to be one of the biggest surprises in the NBA as a whole this season. Plumlee is leading the Suns in double-doubles, and although he is only 55 minutes removed from being a rookie this season, he has become one of the most important players on the team.
The Frequent Flyer (I refuse to call him Plumdog) had one bad game offensively this week against OKC which significantly lowered his averages. However, even when he isn't scoring the ball or getting credited for rebounds and blocks, he is doing a lot of really good things on the court and making a huge difference when he's on the floor. Plumlee's numbers this week do not tell the entire story, as anyone who watched him play can attest to. He has had an outstanding week and has been one of the biggest keys to the Suns success thus far.
Keef deserves the player of the week award for stringing together the three best games of his career in a row, and improving in each of them. This is the player the Suns were hoping for when they drafted him in 2011, and if he can continue to play at this level, or even close to it, he can make a huge difference for this team. Markieff has seemingly readjusted his focus from being a stretch four to playing more in the low post. He has only taken two thee-point shots thus far in the season, and has done the majority of his scoring at the rim and at the foul line...which is exactly what the organization and fans have been waiting to see from him.
Who knows if Markieff can continue to reinvent himself into the efficient low-post scoring and rebounding machine that he has become over the past few games, but he deserves credit for his impressive turnaround after what appeared to be another lackluster start to the season. Keef gave the Suns an added dimension of toughness and efficiency in and around the post that they haven't been able to get from him before. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come for the new and improved Markieff Morris.
After the Spurs beat the Suns in the final minute in true Spursian fashion, color Tony Parker impressed. "A lot of people they really don't believe in Phoenix. I think they're pretty good," he said after the game.
The Suns have the league's 5th-ranked defense in terms of points-per-possession and 12th ranked offense. This from a team universally predicted to finish in the cellar of the West.
"Everybody's counting us out," P.J. Tucker said after Friday's win over Denver. "Everybody."
Before that game, Denver coach Brian Shaw was worried. One of his keys to the game was to take the Phoenix Suns seriously. He explained that sometimes NBA players don't get as keyed up for a team without a marquee player, but that he hoped his team wouldn't fall into that trap.
Denver came out flat, losing the first half by 17 and the fourth quarter by 14 under the snowball called the Phoenix Suns.
"We want people to keep taking us lightly," shooting guard Gerald Green said after the game when told of Shaw's comments. "Go ahead and take us lightly."
To be clear, Shaw wasn't dissing the Suns. On the contrary, he was simply stating his concern that players sometimes pick and choose the games they get most excited for. To no one's surprise, the Phoenix Suns are not yet a team that scares its opponents.
"I think that we can even click even more," Green said of the potential to get better. "It's kind of scary to think what our potential is and I don't think everybody realizes what we really can do. I think that game by game we surprise each other."
P.J. Tucker is one of only four players who went through last season's debacle, so it's instructive to get his take on all of this excitement. Kris and I asked him to compare this season's spirit or "vibe" with last season at this time.
"We had the same high hopes last year," he said with a chuckle. "We thought we were a good team last year and we were going to win. Even the first 20 games when we were losing a little bit, we were still thinking we were going to turn it on. It's still the same, I think."
The Suns started the season 7-8 before losing a ton of games by Christmas and eventually losing their coach in January. Tucker warns that the season is too early to call, but he really likes what he sees from the team.
"There's a lot of focus," he said. "Everybody's coming in, playing hard, playing like it's their last game. I love the group, how we're playing together. Everybody sharing the ball, right there together."
Last week, after the Suns opener, point guard Goran Dragic had the same warning not to get too excited this early.
Coach Hornacek, on the other hand, isn't jaded from last season. He's impressed with the team's resilience and brought up a new buzz word that must make the President of Basketball Operations smile.
"Typically, the young guys get panicked and it gets even worse," Hornacek said of their recovery from getting blitzed in the third quarter on Friday. "But our guys are not doing that and that's a great sign. They stay with it, they stay composed even though we have a young team.
"That's a great sign for the future," he continued. "To see these guys already have it. Usually, it takes a few years where they grab their composure and poise - that's one of Lon Babby's "Five Ps" is poise. If we can continue to do that it makes is easier on us coaches."
The season is still young, but this team just feels a lot more focused and together than at any time a year ago. Win or lose, they have each other's backs.