At 35-24, good for 7th in the West, the Phoenix Suns continue to astound the experts with their play. When Eric Bledsoe returns, the Suns 7th ranked offense and 15th ranked defense will become even more effective.
With the Phoenix Suns setting season highs in scoring (129) and assisting (29) on Sunday night against the struggling Hawks, now is a perfect time to celebrate just how great, and unexpected, this season has become.
The 35-24 Suns are sitting in 7th place in the West with 23 games to go - a spot almost NO ONE thought they would be at this point of the season. They are missing their second-best player and playmaker, yet are still cranking out the points and winning games.
The question is: How?
"Like I've been saying all season man," Gerald Green said on Sunday night. "It's easy playing with guys like Goran [Dragic] and Ish [Smith] who are able to create and breakdown the defense. I have the easiest job in the world, knocking down shots so I have to give my credit to them."
The coaching staff has devised an offense that relies on spacing three guys on the three-point line and isolating the point guard against a single defender. A "big" comes out to pick off the defender to initiate the pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop. The Suns don't lead the league the in pick-and-roll plays, but they are pretty close to the top.
If it's Channing Frye throwing the pick, it's a devastating pick-and-pop. Per NBA.com, SportVu data shows that the Goran Dragic/Channing Frye pick-and-roll is the deadliest in the game this season, producing 1.3 points per attempt. Either Channing Frye gets open for a three, or Goran Dragic is open for a drive to the hoop or a kick-out shooter is wide open.
On Friday night, the helpers didn't leave the three-point shooters, so Dragic put together a career high game of 40 points to go with 5 assists and the Suns scored 109 points. On Sunday, the defenders reacted to force the pass and the Suns simply made 15 threes and set a season high in scoring.
Overall, the Suns pick and roll plays with any combination of players is best in the league as well, producing 1.093 points on all 2,162 possessions this season. Damn.
If it's Miles Plumlee or another traditional big throwing the pick, then the defense has to play for the hard roll to the hoop. Plumlee isn't much of a threat except on a hard drive, but defenses STILL have to defend it. And once they commit, the court opens up.
The Suns have the best spacing the league, and Goran Dragic is a relentless attacker. He's very different than Steve Nash was, and his results pretty good because he's more of a scorer than Nash ever was. Now that he's making more than 50% of his shots and more than 40% of his threes to keep defenses from guarding the drive, he's even more devastating.
Substitute Marcus Morris or Markieff Morris for Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee, and little changes. Same dangers for the defense, just different jersey numbers.
And all the while, you've got Gerald Green and P.J. Tucker spotting up in the corners for threes. They make nearly 40% of those shots each, so their defenders can't help on the inevitable drives by the point guards.
All this adds up to a potent offense: 7th in offensive efficiency, 8th in True Shooting Percentage (TS% takes into account three pointers AND free throws).
The Suns are especially effective when they play two point guards at the same time, with each being the other's outlet on corner threes (in place of Gerald Green).
The second initiator allows the Suns to reset their offense as many times as necessary on a possession to get an effective pick-and-roll going, no matter what side of the floor.
Ish Smith as the secondary ball handler has some limitations in that he cannot make three-pointers, but he is aggressive enough to force the defense to react on drives anyway.
When Eric Bledsoe returns and gets re-acclimated to the offense, the Suns will be even more dangerous. Bledsoe played 5-on-5 on Saturday and will continue to play more and more until he's ready to play without sucking wind in the opening minutes. Hornacek will rely on the training staff for the go-ahead to activate Bledsoe.
*Channing Frye's TS% is listed from the 2011-12 season, since he missed all of last year. He was slightly more effective that season on fewer minutes per game.
Eight of nine players in the Suns regular rotation are enjoying career highs in True Shooting Percentage, which takes into account three pointers and free throws.
While Miles Plumlee's rise is partially due to increased opportunities, most of the guys are just shooting it better than ever no matter what their minutes distribution. That's because they are taking smarter shots, and the shots they take are expected and within the flow of the offense.
*Channing Frye's PER is listed from the 2011-12 season, since he missed all of last year. He was slightly more effective that season on fewer minutes per game.
PER is a measurement developed by John Hollinger for ESPN that measures overall offensive effectiveness. You can see that not only is every player's PER higher than a year ago, it's the highest of their careers for most.
Every single player is getting more minutes this year than last - again, the eye-popper is Miles Plumlee - and all but one is setting career high in minutes per game.
Despite people really being down on Plumlee, he is a good player for what he brings to a defense which is still ranked 15th overall in the league despite the recent downturn across the board. The Suns are competitive on the defensive end, something not credited often to Suns teams in the past.
"I think one of the most impressive things is how hard they play," Atlanta coach Jeff Budenholzer, a long time Spurs assistant, said of the Suns. "I think it's a real credit to how hard they play and to obviously Jeff Hornacek and the staff. They really get after it. Defensively, they do a lot of things to disrupt you. They're physical. I think it has been great for the whole league to watch how they play on both ends of the court."
The defense only works as long as there's a rim protector. Plumlee is 19th in the NBA among all forwards and centers in total rebound rate and block rate (17.5% and 3.9%, respectively) and pulls down 8.3 rebounds in 26 minutes per game.
And, he's still the Suns best defensive player (defensive rating 102). Plumlee is 30th among forwards and centers in defensive win shares for the season (2.3) while only being 56th in total minutes played. He's also still 22nd in the league in FG% allowed at the rim (50.2%), where the league average is about 59%.
His offensive struggles are well-documented, especially lately, but he is a necessary rim protector and rebounder.
In fact, Miles Plumlee's 17.5% rebound rate is even more important considering that the Suns' next highest rebound rate is Markieff Morris at 12.5%. Alex Len's rebound rate is 15.0% but he only plays a few minutes a game.
The Suns' newest off the street acquisition, Shavlik Randolph, impressed Suns coach Jeff Hornacek in his first practice for having a "knack" for rebounding. Randolph's career rebound rate is 16.0%. Sure, that's on a small sample size (only once played more than 16 games in a season), but it's still good.
Randolph won't take Plumlee's minutes as long as Plumlee is engaged and ready to play. Plumlee gives the Suns the rim protection they need to be effective.
Of course it can. Hornacek doesn't buy the argument that the Suns players might be tired. And you can see why, because only half of the players have already played more total minutes than last season. Plumlee and Frye are the outliers, having played more than 3,100 more minutes than a season ago already.
But everyone else is on pace to exceed their career-high minutes, so it's something to watch. The return of Eric Bledsoe will be a nice boost to the rotation, and Randolph will take Alex Len's minutes on many nights to provide a veteran presence.
The Suns can sustain their play for the rest of the season, and can potentially step up their individual efforts with slightly fewer minutes as Bledsoe rounds into form.
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The Phoenix Suns set season highs all over the board in scoring and assists, and held off the almost-as-hot Atlanta Hawks in a high-scoring affair that Eddie Johnson and Dominique Wilkins would love.
The Atlanta Hawks were hot from the perimeter, shooting 68% in the first quarter and making 5 of their first 10 threes. But the Phoenix Suns were even hotter and had built a 14-point halftime lead with 12-for-18 shooting on threes and 64% shooting overall by halftime.
"The whole night, I think, both of our teams are hard to guard," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said of the Suns and Hawks. "In terms of how we play, kicking it up and quick shots."
The halftime score was nearly equal to a full Eastern Conference dogfight: 79-65 Suns. As a media mate, Paul Richardson, put it: "It's an All-Star game without any All Stars."
The Suns 79 points are the most by any NBA team in a half this season. The Hawks, missing their top two big men, decided to play as fast as possible and nearly kept pace with the Suns, scoring 65 of their own.
"We knew it was going to be like that," guard Gerald Green said. "But I didn't know they were going to be running like THAT."
"They push the ball," Suns guard Goran Dragic said. "and I was kind of tired the first two minutes. My legs were heavy."
Dragic had a
quiet good game, finishing with only 19 points, 8 assists and 5 rebounds in 33 minutes.
The Suns made 12 threes in the half, and the teams together made 18. NBA records are 22 and 31, respectively. the Suns own the 22 threes, in a Nov 2010 game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
At halftime, I had the pleasure of watching old veterans Dominique Wilkins (Hawks) and Eddie Johnson (Suns) yuk it up about the lack of D in the first half. Great stuff.
In the second half, the Hawks decided that if the league record 31 treys is going to get beat they needed to contribute more. The Hawks made 5 threes in the third quarter and pulled to within 1 of the Suns before the home boys scored some quick points to pull back out to a 7-point lead at the end of three.
102-95 Suns after three. 25 total threes made. 14 by the Suns. Doesn't look like the Suns will break their own record of 22, but the two teams might just top 31 total.
The fourth quarter was closer than it probably should have been, but the countdown to 31 was on. The teams reached 29 with 3 minutes left, and nothing but garbage time on the docket.
But it was not meant to be.
The Suns merely set an NBA record for most points in a half (79), beat their own season-high in scoring (129) and assists (29 on 44 field goals), and tied their season high for three pointers in a game (15; done two other times this season).
That's 129 points on 44 field goals, folks.
And won easily, despite the Hawks playing hard all the way to the end.
Gerald Green led the Suns with 33 points. The Morris brothers added 39 points and 17 rebounds.
"Like I've been saying all season," Green said afterward. "It's easy playing with guys like Goran and Ish who are able to create and break down the defense. I have the easiest job in the world, knocking down shots."
"[Korver] is the best shooter in the league," Hornacek said, who was with the Utah organization when Korver was filling it up for the Jazz. "We had P.J. try to run around on him, but it is hard. Kyle has been guarded that way forever and ever. He knows how to get open... he knows how to get off screens... He knows how to just catch it and shoot it."
Hornacek was happy with the win, despite giving up 120 points to get there.
"Sometimes there might look like there was zero defense out there," he said. "But I am sure the guys were trying."
Marcus Morris and Markieff Morris scored a combined 39 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, very evenly distributed. The Suns are now 16-5 when both twins get double digits in scoring.
The game started as most recent Suns games have started - with the Suns not playing with any energy on defense as they try to simply outscore the other team.
A Hawks team missing 5 guys who could start for them scored 18 POINTS IN THE FIRST FIVE MINUTES OF THE GAME. That's disgusting. Fortunately, the Hawks weren't defending either and the Suns still led on the scoreboard by 4, but all that does is tell the team they don't even need to play D.
Sure enough, the Hawks scored the next 9 points on successive possessions and took at 27-22 lead. Awful focus. Awful.
The Hawks scored at will until Ish Smith and Markieff Morris entered to help get some stops, and the Suns finally grabbed a 3-point lead at the end of one Q, thanks to 6 threes by the Suns in the period.
New "savior" Shavlik Randolph entered with 7 seconds left in the first quarter and the Suns nursing a 5-point lead, and immediately committed a foul to put the Hawks on the line. Oh well. Maybe not the season savior after all?
Suns lead, 40-37.
The second quarter was more of the same, except the Suns got a few more stops and soon the lead was 14 despite the Hawks STILL SHOOTING 66% AND 5-OF-10 FROM THREE. Is that possible? Apparently it is.
Suns finished the half with a 13-point lead thanks to 64% shooting and 12-of-18 on threes. The Hawks made 6 of their own, and the record-watch was on.
NBA record for threes in a game, one team: 22 (Phoenix Suns beat Los Angeles Lakers, Nov 4, 2010)
NBA record for threes in a game, both teams: 31 (Toronto vs. Philly, 2005)