After losing two early-season games to the Kings, the Phoenix Suns showed their customary hustle to win an offensive shootout in the desert behind big efforts from Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe.
After the Kings had closed a 12-point gap to 4 with 3 minutes left, Bledsoe got his career high in points a moment later on a three-pointer. He finished with 28 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds and 3 steals.
Miles Plumlee had a great game defending DeMarcus Cousins (only 13 points on 4-14 shooting), and pouring in 12 points of his own (all on dunks), grabbing 9 rebounds, 4 steals and 3 blocks. Very nice game for him. Maybe he got the Slava wake-up call?
Goran Dragic finished with 29 huge points - all in the first three quarters before Bledsoe took over the fourth - to get the Suns the lead heading into the fourth frame. He nearly tied that career high (32), but a three rimmed out.
And then there was P.J. Tucker. Frustrated all night by the foul calls and physical game, Tucker had a great fourth and helped close out the game with offensive boards and putbacks. He had 5 points and 5 rebounds in the fourth quarter alone (10 and 8 for the game).
Two of the Phoenix Suns nine losses have come at the hands of the Sacramento Kings, and none of their first 12 wins.
Two of the Kings meager six wins have been over the Phoenix Suns, and none of their first 14 losses.
In the NBA, sometimes a team is just a bad matchup. To wit, the Suns have beaten Portland twice this year, accounting for half of their losses in 23 games (Portland is 19-4 this year). Why the Suns have Portland's number, I don't know.
And why the Kings have the Suns' number I don't know. The Kings are a terrible offensive team playing it's first game with all of their new acquisitions in their lineup - Derrick Williams and Rudy Gay... and Aaron Gray, of course. Yet it doesn't matter who the Kings put around DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas, the Kings kill the Suns.
After the Suns charged out to a 13-2 lead, the Kings outscored the Suns 32-15 the rest of the quarter and led all the way through the second.
Aaron Gray played like a real NBA player, with 5 rebounds in 8 minutes of play in the first half. Derrick Williams put in 7 points and grabbed 2 rebounds in the first half - not big numbers, but he was in for both big Kings runs and was a +18 in 14 first half minutes of a 3-point game.
The Suns clawed close behind Goran Dragic's awesome first half - 21 points on 7-8 shooting (3-3 on threes) and 2 assists and 3 rebounds. But Dragic had 4 of the Suns' 12 first half turnovers.
Oh yeah, the turnovers. The Suns had 12 in the FIRST HALF ALONE, along with giving up 6 offensive rebounds to the Kings, to help account for the Kings taking 11 more shots than the Suns in 24 minutes of play.
The Suns trailed 61-58 at halftime. Two of those points were on techical fouls, called on Hornacek and Tucker protesting the refs whistles.
Could the Suns clamp down on the defensive end against a Kings team that only scores 98 a game? We shall see...
Plumlee didn't start the second half well, after having been pulled for Slava Kravtsov in the first half already. And when you're pulled for Slava, you know you're not having a good game. Kravtsov played terrible in Plumlee's wake. Really terrible.
And then Plumlee came out of nowhere to block Cousins on a breakaway dunk attempt to light up the crowd (and piss off Cousins). A possession later, Cousins fumbled a loose ball out of bounds in front of the Suns bench. Still heated from the embarrassing block, Cousins jawed with Dionte Christmas and was called for a technical to give the Suns the lead.
Could Cousins recapture his cool?
The Suns sprouted to a 5-point lead in the blink of an eye to force a Kings TO, as Mike Malone tried to regroup his troops.
It didn't work.
The Suns started rolling with aggression that was missing since early in the first quarter. Even when Miles Plumlee missed three straight point-blank shots in the paint (two were heavily contested at least), he tied up the Kings on the way back down, forced a jump ball that went the Suns way and ended in a Dragic three.
Suddenly, it was a 12 point lead for the Suns - a 19-4 run to start the second half.
The key to the game now was for the Suns to stay aggressive. Young teams tend to get comfortable, and either overextend (into fouls) or expect someone else to make the play. Staying sharp is the key.
The Suns did not stay sharp. Turnovers returned. Cousins and Thomas getting calls. Suns missing layups.
At the end of the third quarter, the Suns lead was only three points after they let little Isaiah Thomas drive the length of the court for a layup with seconds to go.
At the end of three:
In the fourth quarter, the Suns went small with the Morrii at the 4 and 5 for a couple of minutes before subbing out Dragic for Frye. It was Bledsoe's lead to hold.
Aaron Gray imposed his will/size again in the fourth with a couple of putback layins to bail out the Kings bad possessions. The Suns tried to use Frye to draw Gray out on defense, but it was Gray's work under his own basket that kept the Kings alive.
But Gerald Green and Channing Frye hit a couple of big threes to keep the Suns in a comfortable lead.
Then Plumlee came in with a couple of nice finish-dunks and another big block on a Cousins drive, leading to a Bledsoe fast break score, that gave the Suns a 12-point lead with 5:50 to go.
Hopefully, the Suns remember having had a 14-point lead with 3.5 minutes to go in Sacramento last month, and don't let their foot off the gas.
The Kings didn't die, but the Suns didn't have Eric Bledsoe in that first couple of losses either. Bledsoe put on a show in the fourth that was so good you wondered if Dragic would even get back in the game to match/beat his career high - he was only 3 points shy coming into the fourth.
Dragic came back with 4:35 to go, with he and Bledsoe a combined 5 points from their career highs.
After just 21 games, the Phoenix Suns look like a team that is here to stay. But why just stand pat? According to NBA.com, the Suns are looking to upgrade now.
According to Scott Howard-Cooper, the Suns are ready to make a move to solidify their playoff chances now, and speed up (or even end) the rebuilding process just when it got started -- and faster than most teams have ever rebuilt once they put their minds to it.
The Suns, obviously encouraged by a promising start and with several attractive assets at their disposal, are making it known around the league they are open to trading one or more picks in the loaded 2014 draft if they can get an established star capable of making an impact now, NBA.com has learned.
"I think one of the things that's important for people to realize is that we may not draft four players even if we have four picks," McDonough told NBA.com. "Our preference would probably be to maybe package a few of them. We're obviously all looking for stars and we feel like we can put together a package as good, if not better, than any other team in the league if and when a star becomes available. That's kind of generally what we've wanted to do, not only with our draft-pick situation but also with the cap space that we've acquired."
The Suns are clearly playing at a sustainable level even standing pat, which might snag one of the last playoff spots or barely miss out if it takes 48+ wins and they come up just short.
The current team still doesn't have a transcendent player so often needed to win once you get to the playoffs.
And if you're in the middle in the NBA, you're in the worst position.
It no longer seems probable that the Suns will end up with a top-5 pick in the vaunted 2014 Draft. Certainly, there are potential franchise-changers in there, but there also might be a franchise changer at any point in the top half of the Draft. The chances are smaller, but it's happened before.
Nay, the Suns are looking for a franchise changer right now, according to NBA.com.
But who? And at what price?
I really, really, really hope that answer isn't Carmelo Anthony. His game is the antithesis of the current Suns. He shoots midrange shots, doesn't play team ball and doesn't play defense. I suppose the right coach can ride Anthony deep into a playoff run, as George Karl did in Denver. But it's more likely that Anthony's diva personality would drive a wedge into what Jeff Hornacek has been building here in Phoenix. Please don't, Ryan McD!
What about another 2010 Draftee whose team doesn't want to give them a max contract? Of course, by that definition it's not likely that's a franchise savior. But if Gordon Hayward or Greg Monroe were available, you'd think the Suns would work really hard to acquire them before the February trade deadline to allow the Suns to have the upper hand in negotiations.
Recap of Suns assets:
The Suns could use some of that booty to acquire a guy in the near future to make a run at the 2013-14 playoffs.
Or, they could holster their gun and wait until the summer and use their max-level free agent money to sign someone outright.
Maybe LeBron James would like to join his buddy Eric Bledsoe in Phoenix, and make everything easier for the Suns?
Is there really a chance that LeBron James would sign with the Suns to fill the only real hole on the roster - a superstar SF/PF to carry the team through the playoffs? Very unlikely.
Or, Kevin Love? That would only happen if Minny flails again and is ready to start over. This acquisition would probably be by trade, to let the Wolves rebuild quickly. The Suns certainly have the assets, if Minny wants to move him.
This series has been one-sided for the past two years and it has not been in the favor of the team that actually has a winning record this season...
Last time the Phoenix Suns (12-9) hosted the Sacramento Kings (6-14) at home they played lethargic, lacked energy, and dropped a second straight game against a team that is positioning themselves in the lottery. The Suns are trying to position themselves in the playoffs and to be that caliber team it requires consistently beating teams like the Kings at home, on the road, and in every facet of the game.
Against those teams the Suns are 2-3 on the season (6-4 overall against winning teams) collectively with close losses on their resume.
A win against the Kings puts the Suns just .5 games behind the Division Leading Los Angeles Clippers (14-9) and prove that they are a team with some staying power. This season the talk of the NBA has been how poor the Eastern Conference is compared to the Western Conference, but the reality is the West has a very soft middle. Teams 4-14 are all good, but uniquely flawed to where most would not consider them championship contenders.
Other than the Utah Jazz (5-19) and the Kings (6-14) every team in the West is at least one game under .500 or better on the season. Any mix of 13 teams can make the playoffs at this juncture in the season.
That is why games against the Kings and other lower level teams are important.
This season the Suns are 6-4 against teams with winning records today and 6-5 against teams that are below .500 on the year. Compare that to the 8th Seed in the West last year, the Houston Rockets, they went 22-10 against the teams under .500 and 26-14 against non-playoff teams.
Back to the Suns v. Kings.
It could be the season debut for Rudy Gay in a Kings uniform after being traded five days ago. After he was traded the team introduced him to the fans by having them come down through the crowd The Shield style, through the crowd, and with the comments that advanced stats do not mean everything for a player. They don't.
At the very least the Kings are going to be interesting, athletic, and potentially exciting. DeMarcus Cousins has seemed to make the leap this year playing like a big man, Isaiah Thomas is finally starting, Ben McLemore has been good in spurts, and insert Rudy Gay.
He does not have a lot of fans in the sports community because of his inefficient shooting and style of play, I am certainly not a fan myself, but he can be a 15-20 point scorer night to night for a team that already has a No.1 in Cousins and a No. 2 in Thomas.
The Kings may not have a great record and are trending towards the lottery, but they pose a lot of unique challenges for the Suns every time they square. More on those challenges...
(Recent) History Lesson
0-2 Against the Kings (110.0-105.0 PPG)
It is a tale of free-throws, energy, and learning that you cannot turn it off and on in this league unless you have elite, top tier talent. The Suns do not have that type of talent and found out the hard way as the cellar dweller Kings took full advantage of the Suns lack of drive against them in a home-and-home series. It will take focus to dispatch a young, hungry team with nothing to lose.
Head-to-Head (past four seasons including Playoffs)
Suns: 103.69 PPG (6 wins)
Kings: 102.15 PPG (7 wins)
As of late the Kings have dominated the series winning four straight games taking control of the series as of late. In all four wins the Kings are have scored 107+ points in every game scoring at will on the Suns. Even with the Kings in the cellar of the NBA they have the Suns number over the past two seasons...
Potential Kings Inactives: Carl Landry (Left Hip, Out)
"Drafted by the wrong team," is a phrase and concept thrown around here-and-there, but in the case of Derrick Williams it is proving to be very true. In 155 games with the Minnesota Timberwolves (10.1 PPG 4.9 RPG 42.0 FG%) blended into the bench and made no impact. He is making an impact now. During his time in Sacramento, seven games, Williams is averaging 12.9 PPG 5.4 RPG shooting 53.1% from the field.
For Marcus Morris, a player of similar skill and impact, he is finding a home here in Phoenix off the bench as a scorer. Those two will be called upon to score for their respective teams inside-and-out. This season Morris is averaging 11.0 PPG and 4.9 RPG this year for the Suns in a more defined role.
Interesting Stat: 15.0 Free-Throws Per Game
For his career DeMarcus Cousins averages 5.6 FTA per game (239 games) for his career, 5.5 FTA against every team except the Suns (227 games), and 7.8 FTA against the Suns (12 games) through four seasons. This season he has taken his game to the next level averaging 15.0 FTA per game against the Suns with a new-found consistency playing in the paint.
Meaningless Stat: 22.5 PPG 7.0 RPG 6.5 APG 2.0 SPG
Are the Kings going to miss the production of Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, and Chuck Hayes? Unlikely, but this is the overall production from the three against the Suns this year in two games. If Gay, Gray, and Acy play they had an overall impact of 17 points 10 rebounds 3 assists 2 steals (all Gay) in a loss just last week.