On a team with the least playoff experience, by far, among of the Western Conference hopefuls, P.J. Tucker knows he has to bring his toughness and heart every night for the Suns to qualify for the playoffs.

The Phoenix Suns have exceeded expectations this season and with six games left they are locked in a mortal battle for their playoff lives with Dallas and Memphis for those last two playoff spots.

Among the three teams, the Suns have by far the least playoff experience and the toughest remaining schedule. Collectively, they don't yet know just how hard it is to make the playoffs and win once you get there. Twice in the past three weeks, the Suns have fallen to a much lesser opponent (Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Lakers).

Even in this playoff push where the Suns have won 9 of their last 12 games, they can shake their heads in dismay at all three of those losses as signs of an experienced team giving away a win. Especially the last two.

"That was probably one of their worst games of their year," coach Hornacek said of the lack of effort shown against the Lakers last Sunday night. "They got a little confident winning those six games in a row and they thought they were just going to show up and beat [LA] and it doesn't work that way."

Then on Wednesday night, the Suns grabbed a 17-point lead late in the third quarter but allowed the Clippers - 3rd seed in the West - to rip off a 38-17 closing run to end the game and drop the Suns to 9th in the standings. The run began with a Clippers second unit that went on a 10-0 run to cut the deficit and allow Doc Rivers to bring back his starters to close out the game.

"It’s like a broken record," Hornacek said. "We tell them all the time, we can’t have a two to three minute lull against these top teams.”

That's inexperience. Maybe the Suns learned their lesson. On Friday night, they flipped the script against 5th-place Portland, ending the game on a 52-22 run.

While Tucker wasn't a big part of the game-ending run, his presence all season long has helped put the Suns 14 games over .500. Hornacek played three point guards a lot, and Gerald Green got hot for 32 points.

But they will need Tucker again if they're going to finish ahead of either Dallas or Memphis. None of these Suns has been been a starter on an NBA playoff team. But Tucker has twice been a league MVP and led his team to championships overseas. Most recently, Tucker led Brose Baskets (Germany) to their league title in 2012, just before joining the Suns for their summer league.

"I was the big offseason acquisition," he told me at practice earlier this season. "We had expectations there to win the championship. I was the focus of the team, but at the same time I did all those little things to help win more games than we would have."

Since returning to the NBA, P.J. Tucker has found a way to earn his coach's trust three times over. Alvin Gentry, Lindsey Hunter and now Jeff Hornacek - all with different expectations on them - have turned to Tucker to give him big minutes. Tucker is second on the team in minutes played this season (would be third, but for Bledsoe's injury) and never seems to run out of energy. The same cannot be said for the other guys on the team.

Hornacek lamented his inability to leave his best players on the court for 40 minutes a night like other teams can.

"They’re not able to play the 40 minutes like some of these other guys," Hornacek said after the Clipper loss, of regressing to one-on-one play when they get tired. "But it looked like Chris Paul had all the energy in the world at the end of the game. Maybe that’s our fault for not getting them in better shape.”

For his part, Tucker just wants to win games any way he can. He's not the most talented, or physically gifted, or tallest player on the court. But he's got heart.

"We just need to win games," he said after losing to Cleveland. "We need to win."

Grabbing those boards

Among small forwards this season*, P.J. Tucker is #1 in offensive rebound rate and #2 in total rebound rate. The only small forward with better rebounding numbers is Carmelo Anthony.

*Basketball-reference.com does not filter for small forwards, so I defined it as players 6'5" - 6-8" who have taken at least 150 three-pointers this season (2 per game). The results are still dirty, because you have to ignore guys like Paul Millsap and Thad Young who normally play other positions. And, they don't include SFs who are taller, like some kid named Kevin Durant. But still, it's a frame of reference.

Since the All-Star Break, P.J. Tucker leads the Suns in defensive rebounds per game (5.3, just ahead of Markieff Morris' 5.0) and is second in offensive rebounds per game (2.0, behind Plumlee's 2.5).

Just watching Tucker makes it clear how he is the best rebounder in the league under 6'6". While other players are inconsistent with their effort and arm extension in traffic, Tucker gets both arms outstretched to their maximum length and grabs that ball with authority even with other players draped all over him.

Team rebounding

The Tucker surge is not due to attrition around him. As a team, the Suns are 13th on defensive rebounds per game, 9th in offensive rebounds per game and 11th in total rebounds since the All-Star break. Yes, that's correct. You read it right. The Suns are a quality rebounding team since the break.

The team as a whole has improved one of their worst areas on defense, despite their leading rebounder (Plumlee) seeing a drop from 28 minutes per game in December to 20 minutes per game since the break.

As a team, the Suns remain middle of the pack defensively since the break, even with that horrible stretch at the end of February of allowing 50%+ shooting several games in a row.

Shotmaking and defense

Of course, rebounding is not the only way to quantify the value of a small forward. In a Suns offense designed to attack the defense with penetrating guards who kick out to three-point shooters, the small forward must possess the following qualities:

  • Space the floor by making three pointers (Tucker makes 39.1%)
  • Play defense (Tucker is team's best defender)
  • Rebound the misses on offense (Tucker is #1 in offensive rebound rate among SFs)

Tucker has turned himself into a very good corner three-point shooter this season.

Tucker-heat-chart_medium

*courtesy of basketball-reference.com

He knows where he can be effective and he stays there. Yes, we've seen him take too many interior shots, forgetting that he's only 6'5", but Tucker knows how to convert more than a player of his size should be able to convert.

Tucker-percentages-by-distance_medium

Best of all, Tucker gets better at finishing his shots in the fourth quarter than in any other quarter. He's a money-time player.

Tucker-percentages-by-quarter_medium

Of course, the Suns could do better. They could have a guy who is a bigger part of the offense. Tucker is 74th on that b-ref list in offensive usage rate among "small forwards". He can't pass well, and whenever he dribbles the ball it's an adventure.

Carmelo Anthony is clearly the best of this mold of player, but he makes north of $20 million a year.

Take a look at the list of small forwards out there on the link. Among the good rebounding SFs who make a high percentage of their three-pointers and can defend the other team's best big wing player, you see names like Carmelo Anthony, Kawhi Leonard, Lance Stephenson, LeBron James, Nicolas Batum and Paul George.

The other guys on the list fit the mold but come up short in one or more areas: Mike Scott doesn't make many threes. Neither does Thaddeus Young. Mirza Teletovic, Jordan Hamilton and Dorrell Wright can't defend as well as P.J.

Trevor Ariza is probably the best example of a better version of Tucker, and he made $7.7 million this season.

Hayward

If you look hard enough, you'll see offseason darling Gordon Hayward way down this list. He is 25th in total rebound percentage (30% less than Tucker) and makes only 31% of his three pointers.

He passes very well (24.4% assist rate would be third on Suns by wide range) and handles the ball well, and maybe you bank on Hayward's higher three-point % in prior seasons (47%, 35%, 41%) and discount the rebounding issue as a byproduct of playing on a good rebounding team.

But is Hayward worth a big enough restricted free agent offer to pull him from the Jazz? Hayward is a restricted free agent, meaning the Jazz can match any free agent offer. There's no way the Jazz match a reasonable offer, so the only way any team pries Hayward away is to offer him a lot more money than he's worth right now, banking on him improving by leaps and bounds in a different environment.

Jeff Hornacek was his shooting coach in Utah when Hayward was a good three-point shooter, and we have all seen this season how Hornacek puts every player in position to succeed.

Still, that's a gamble to pay any free agent based on future potential rather than current production.

Stephenson

The Suns best possible target, in terms of talent, productivity and likelihood, would be Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson.

Stephenson, 23, defends very well, rebounds very well, and makes enough threes to keep teams honest. In addition, he passes well (as good as Hayward) and handles well enough to run the offense as a change of pace.

In the Suns offense, he would play small forward just like P.J. Tucker (both are 6'5") in the mold of Dan Majerle back in the late 80s around Hornacek and Kevin Johnson. The Suns offense would improve, and the defense would potentially improve as well.

The downside is that Stephenson is a wildcard who had red flags coming out of college and is seen as someone who fits best on a veteran team with leaders who can keep him on the straight and narrow.

Stephenson is an unrestricted free agent, meaning that the Pacers cannot just match any offer this summer to keep him. But the Pacers can still offer larger raises and one more year (five years vs. four). For a player of Stephenson's age and talent, the fifth year would be an easy decision.

The Suns would have enough salary cap space to make Stephenson an offer of any size (he can make up to nearly $14 million in his first year), but like other teams can only offer four seasons.

But even then, is Lance Stephenson a better bargain at, say, $10-12 million per year than P.J. Tucker at $2-5 million per year?

In the NBA, talent wins out. Stephenson would make the Suns a very dangerous opponent to any team in the NBA on both ends of the floor.

Back to the present

The Phoenix Suns are in the playoff picture this year in part because of the intensity and effort of P.J. Tucker. On a team whose veteran leaders are quiet (Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Channing Frye), Tucker has stepped up this season to be the voice of effort and hustle in the locker room and on the floor.

The coach and players all point to Tucker as their vocal leader and their bellwether of effort. He doesn't have the greatest offensive skillset. Rather he maximizes his talent more than most players in the NBA can do.

Seeing how hard he works has helped other players tap further into their own talents.

P.J. Tucker will cash in this summer. The question is whether the Suns will pay him, roll the dice to find a cheap replacement, or pay someone else more money to be an even bigger factor on the team.

But if those other avenues are murky, or the Suns spend their money elsewhere, they can do a lot worse than P.J. Tucker next season at $3-5 million per year.

We should have known this was coming. After all, it is Green Week in the NBA. It was Green Night in Portland. Gerald rained in 32 as he put on a show for the stunned Blazers crowd and gave the Suns a crucial road victory.

By the time they took the court the Suns were all alone in ninth place. No tiebreakers, just flat out behind. Memphis had just taken care of the Denver Nuggets, winning 100-92, while Phoenix was staring in the face of a much more potent adversary.

The Moda Center Rose Garden was rocking early in the game. To their credit, Blazers fans are an obstreperous, engaged group. Goran Dragic attempted to quiet the crowd, but appeared to be forcing the issue instead of letting the game come to him and went 1-6 in the early going with a technical foul before earning himself some early rest.

An efficacious substitution resulted in Gerald Green inciting a push to help the Suns gain and maintain a lead in the latter part of the first quarter. Green and Eric Bledsoe each scored 10 in the period as they combined to shoot 7-8 from the field. Unfortunately, the rest of the Suns were a paltry 3-17.

After a quick spell, Goran came back in and gave the Suns a six point lead (40-34) by scoring six points in 25 seconds on a three pointer followed by a finish and free throw on a fast break. Through the early part of the second quarter Robin Lopez, the one that got away, was keeping the Blazers close by being a hustling, disruptive, rim protecting, free throw making force.

As the game unfurled in the second quarter it became apparent that the Suns had a little bit of an edge tonight. They were playing angry. I'll refrain from using the word chippy here because it's way too hockeyish.

The Suns controlled the tone of the game for most of the second quarter and led 51-45 before going limp by failing to score in the final 4:12 of the half. They went 0-11 from the field and missed two free throws during the stretch. Portland seized the opportunity and turned a six point deficit into a three point halftime lead (54-51).

The beginning of the third quarter was not kind to the Suns. Digging a hole against a quality opponent in a hostile environment is never desirable... and suddenly the Suns found themselves down double digits. Instead of shrinking while they were going through a rough patch Phoenix redoubled their effort. At times it looked like there were two or three of Miles Plumlee on the court as he was having one of his best rebounding games of the season. Miles was dwarfed by Lopez's sheer size, but was doing his best to offset the big man's impact.

LaMarcus Aldridge started to get it going a little bit after a four point first half and poured in 12 in the third quarter, but the Suns chipped away at the lead and kept themselves within striking distance.

At the beginning of the fourth quarter Phoenix regained the lead (81-80) on an emphatic (SportsCenter Top 10) dunk by Gerald Green after intentionally passing the ball to himself off the backboard. Green was officially in heat check mode. A few minutes later he hit a three to give Phoenix a 95-85 lead and the Portland faithful were absolutely staggered.

A 26-7 run can have that kind of an effect on a crowd.

The Blazers had been taken completely out of their comfort zone. All Phoenix did down the stretch was win every 50/50 ball, grab every big rebound and make every big shot. Bledsoe was pouring it on, too, going for 12 of his 30 points in closing mode. The Suns regifted the fourth quarter ass whipping the Clippers had laid on them two nights earlier. The final tally of the carnage in the fourth was 30-13 as the Suns walked to a 109-93 victory in a big time game.

I'm going to slip this one into my mental filing cabinet of things I'm going to look back on when I think of what a great season this was.

**Our crackerjack group of stat guys tell me that this is the first time the Suns have had two players score 30 in the same game since the last time it happened (whenever that was).

Jeff Hornacek must have gotten the message across. Two losses to the Los Angeles teams in a row made the Phoenix Suns able to see the end of their season on the horizon, but at first against the...

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The Washington Wizards just clinched a playoff berth, guaranteeing the Suns three first round picks in the 2014 NBA Draft.

When Suns general manager Ryan McDonough took over the Phoenix job, he immediately began unloading veterans and stockpiling draft picks. By the time the dust had settled, the Suns were left with four potential picks in the first round.

Now, with the season nearing its end, it is time to take a look at those draft picks and where they will end up.

Minnesota Pick

The pick acquired from Minnesota (Wes Johnson trade under Lance Blanks) is top 13 protected this year, meaning the Timberwolves have to finish in ninth place in the West for the Suns to get that pick. Currently, they are in 10th, 6.5 games back of the ninth-placed Suns with seven games left to play. Basically, Minnesota has to win out while the Suns have to lose the rest of their games.

The Suns have an important decision on their hands. Do they give up on their chase for the playoffs and instead play for that extra pick? It's never too late to start tanking. Can you imagine what McDonough could do with back to back picks at the end of the lottery?

Huh? No? OK then. Sorry folks, the Suns aren't getting this pick this year.

Targets projected in that range: Doesn't matter.

Washington Pick

This pick was acquired by McDonough in the Marcin Gortat trade, and with the Wizards clinching a spot in the playoffs this week, it officially belongs to the Suns. Currently, the Wizards are sitting at sixth in the East, and considering all the West playoff teams have a better record than they do it means the Suns would receive the 17th pick.

There is still some room for this to move around, however. The Wizards are 1.5 games back of the Brooklyn Nets and two games ahead of the Charlotte Bobcats with six games to play. That means the Suns are pretty much locked into the 16th, 17th or 18th spot.

So, the Suns traded for a top 12 protected pick an in the process sent back a player that would help ensure they would receive that pick. Shrewd move.

Targets projected in that range: DraftExpress - T.J. Warren (F, N.C State), Kyle Anderson (SF, UCLA), Montrezl Harrell (PF, Louisville); NBA Draft Insider - Adreian Payne (PF, Michigan State), Clint Capela (F, International), James Young (SF, Kentucky)

Indiana Pick

The Suns have already won this trade big time. Miles Plumlee has been a solid rotation player and Gerald Green has been even better than that, and all the Sun had to give up was Luis Scola. Now on top of that, the Suns are going to get a late first round pick.

The Pacers looked like the best team in the league (outside of when they played the Sun) for much of the season, but lately they've been free-falling, all the way back to the pack. Meanwhile, San Antonio just reeled of 19 in a row to take the best record in the league while Miami has passed them up in the East. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers have better records right now as well.

That is as far as they are probably going to fall, however, unless the Pacers continue to play poorly. The Houston Rockets, sitting with the sixth best record in the league, are three games back and Indiana has just six games left to play.

The Pacers aren't catching the Spurs, and it's very unlikely that they catch the Thunder. That means that pick is looking like it will be in the 26-28 range depending on how it shakes out between the Heat, Pacers and Clippers.

Targets projected in that range: DX - Rodney Hood (SF, Duke), Elfrid Payton (PG, Louisiana), Cleanthony Early (F, Wichita State); NBADI - Willie Cauley-Stein (C, Kentucky), Nik Stauskas (SG, Michigan), K.J. McDaniels (SF, Clemson)

Suns Pick

That leaves us with just the Suns' own pick, which actually has a wide range.

If the Suns miss the playoffs, they will be drafting at 14. The Timberwolves aren't catching them as I've already said and the East is the East. Whichever of Phoenix, Dallas and Memphis misses the playoffs is locked into the best record among lottery teams. At 14, they are very unlikely to move up.

Targets projected in that range: DX - Doug McDermott (F, Creighton), Tyler Ennis (PG, Syracuse), Gary Harris (SG, Michigan State); NBADI - Jerami Grant (SF, Syracuse), Dario Saric (SF, International), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

If the Suns make the playoffs, whether it is as a 7 or an 8 seed, they are going to jump ahead of the lower half of the Eastern playoff teams. Depending on how Toronto and Chicago finish, the Suns could end up in the 18-22 range.

Targets projected in that range: DX - P.J. Hairston (SG, NBADL/North Carolina); NBADI - Sam Dekker (SF, Wisconsin), Zach Lavine (SG, UCLA)

Phoenix also has a mid-second round pick, so go ahead and plug in your favorite decorated senior or pick the craziest draft and stash international name for this spot.

Hopefully this gives you a better idea for what to watch for (in addition to the playoff race). The Suns basically have three picks in the second half of the first round, and you can look at all of the players from 10-35 or so on your favorite mock draft to see who the Suns might draft. A package-and-trade up move is also very possible, as three guaranteed rookie contracts is a lot to take on for a team with an already full roster.

No matter how things shake out, we can all have confidence knowing Ryan McDonough is the man making the decisions.

A three game losing steak in this type of situation is quite undesirable, but that is what Phoenix is staring in the face as they travel to Portland. I expect to see a reinvigorated team after they got plenty of rest in the fourth quarter of their collapse against the Clippers.

I've decided to deviate slightly from the rigid format that I've followed on my game previews this season. I can be latitudinarian in the same way the Suns are completely flexible in the effort they've been giving lately.

In tribute to the Suns last two performances I first mused over mailing in the entire preview. But then I remembered the last game and figured I could at least write 75% of a captivating, engaging article before completely derailing and letting it devolve into a literary Blazers fan. I kid.

I've heard people talking about these already being playoff games. If the Suns are going to perform like they did against the Lakers and Clippers in the real playoffs then I'm not necessarily too interested in watching them play an extra four games... Instead I like to refer to these dandies as play in games. That sounds much more better.

Tonight's opponent, the Portland Trail Blazers, holds a special place in my cold, dead heart. Even though the pieces are different from seasons past it just gives me a warm glow of smug satisfaction when Phoenix trounces Portland that I just don't get with a victory over a team like the Rockets or Warriors. Beating them on their home court given the stakes would make writing a victory recap slightly more enjoyable than the alternative.

Speaking of home courts, I take exception to Willy and his "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" gibberish since Moda Center sounds like a misguided case of naming rights going down the wrong path. In fact, I think switching from the elegance of the Rose Garden (which is just pretty cool) to the current Moda Center travesty sounds like a cruel prank the fans here in Phoenix would play on their buddies from (pick your favorite nickname) Stumptown, PDX, Rose City, Bridgetown, Beervana, Little Beirut, Potland, Munich on the Willamette, Rip City, Hipster Hollow, South Vancouver.

Yes, with all that great material to sift through they still came up with Moda Center. What the hell is a Moda with them?

I should probably put in here somewhere that tonight's game is at 10:00 pm EST (7:00 local) and will be televised on Fox Sports Arizona Plus. I actually got an email about this so it seems like there may be some change from the regular programming (due to Diamondbacks games?). To be perfectly honest I'm not really sure. The message listed a bunch of cable providers and the channels, but I'm not going to taint this preview (that is going so swimmingly) by cluttering it with a bunch of what will most likely turn out to be useless pertinent information. Just keep in mind that the game may not be on its regular channel. This probably does not affect those of you that are pirating illegal feeds to the game online.

After everything seemed roseate when the Suns were taking care of business against a soft spot in the schedule and rolling off six straight wins, the recent two game skid has drawn the ire of coach Jeff Hornacek as he seems to be hinting that one or more of a combination of Suns players that includes everyone not named P.J. Tucker and Goran Dragic are lacking focus/energy/heart. While Goran would appear to be above reproach in the effort department he has been more than culpable in the losses that have made him a great source of distraught quotes on the team's putrid play and the resulting playoff implications.

Coming off of an excellent effort against the Knicks, 32 points on 11-17 shooting, Dragic had his worst shooting percentage in consecutive games this season by combining to shoot 8-27 from the field. Eric Bledsoe has also struggled in only scoring 12 points per game and committing a total of nine turnovers while only dishing out seven assists. His uncoordinated drive at the end of the game against the Clippers where he had trouble turning the corner, couldn't elevate over Jared Dudley and had his shot blocked from behind by Darren Collison (which resulted in the ball bouncing off of him out of bounds while he was in the supine position) was very unslashy.

These two need to play better.

Speaking of playing better, Portland has regained traction after they appeared to be flirting with a spectacularly catastrophic slide out of the playoffs. Who knew that getting LaMarcus Aldridge back would help? They've now won four straight after a 3-8 stretch that had them creeping towards the bottom of the playoff picture. Aldridge has two games with at least 25 points and 15 rebounds during the win streak.

Portland and Phoenix have met up three times earlier this season (all before December) with the Suns (twice in blowout fashion) and the Blazers (once in a tight game) protecting their stomping grounds. Given the nature of those contests, and the fact that games in November are very useful as predictive tools for outcomes in April, I feel pretty confident in assuming that the Suns are in prime position for a win tonight. If the game is close, though, my advice would be to at least pretend to guard Damian Lillard in the waning moments. Just a thought.

The Suns are now 24-12 in games that Bledsoe has played this season (since people seem to love this stat). Rumors of his impact on the defensive end may be greatly overexaggerated, though, after they have been razed in their last two games.

I'm thinking the Suns are going to have to win at least two (my guess is three if they also go 2-0 at home) of these road games down the stretch to slink into the playoffs, so no reason to squander an opportunity to get one of those tonight. I'd prefer not to fall behind again from this point on. Speaking of squandered opportunities, I found it rather unpleasant to hear Doc Rivers say that if Phoenix would have kept up the pressure on the Clippers through the first part of the grease fire that fourth quarter turned into he would have never even subbed his starters back in to get them some rest.

Instead we helped get them all tuckered out so they wouldn't be able to complete the improbable comeback against Dallas last night like they just managed to do against us.

So that was nice.

There has been plenty of quippy banter circulating lately over the season being a success regardless of the outcome of these last seven games and how a consolation prize of moving up into the lottery would help assuage the wounded pride of falling just short... But I'm of the opinion that the Suns need to get their *&%^ together and make the playoffs.

They have set my expectations based on what they've done this season and I know their expectations are that they can do this. They're definitely capable based on their performance. I know they can do it.  They know they can do it. All that's left is to... well, do it.

So, yes the season is still a success, and yes, getting McMiracle an extra six or seven spots up the draft board will give him a greater purview come draft day, but I will still be disappointed if these guys come up just short after everything they've accomplished this season because they will have failed to realize their potential given this final opportunity.

Which would suck.

So... I'm going to pick the Suns to win tonight.

**Mostly because that's what I want to happen and without really scrutinizing exact reasons why or parsing data to come up with some kind of supportable reason.

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