It took a game that Goran Dragic admits only comes "two or three times a season" to beat the Pacers. For the Suns to match or exceed last year's win total, they will need have another weapon in Isaiah Thomas and they need to play with that same chip on their shoulder as last year.
The Phoenix Suns reprised their "best of 2013-14 season" in the second half of Tuesday night's win over the Indiana Pacers. Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe combined for an incredible stat line of 61 points, 10 assists, 8 rebounds, and 8 steals (against only 5 turnovers) in 74 minutes of play.
But it took those performances to beat a short-handed Pacers team at home. As much as we all loved the vintage Slash Brothers, the Phoenix Suns cannot bank their entire season on Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe playing near-perfect basketball every night to win games.
"Every time when I touched the ball it feels great," Dragic said after scoring 34 points. "Hopefully we're going to have a lot of games like that, but like players we know that it's probably two or three times a season."
The Suns need leading scorer Isaiah Thomas back healthy, and they need him right now. If you don't agree, just ask Gerald Green - the guy who's lost the most minutes as a result of Thomas' insertion in the rotation.
"We miss him, we miss him, we miss him," fellow backup guard Gerald Green said on Tuesday night after the loss to Orlando. "Just his competitive spirit on the court drives not only me but the rest of my teammates."
Without Thomas, the Suns gone 2-2 over the past week with an offense often looking like a jumbled mess. Thomas doesn't add beauty to the offensive flow, but he does add much-needed scoring. Without at least two of Dragic, Bledsoe and Green breathing fire, the Suns struggle. And that's happened more often than not this season.
"We really miss Isaiah," Green said after the Orlando loss. "We missed him in the Denver game and we missed him tonight. Hopefully he'll be available for the next game but we know he's going to take his time to get healthy and the training staff is going to do a good job to get him healthy."
Thomas has been a lightning rod of love/hate here on Bright Side, with most of the blame being levied on him for the slow starts of Bledsoe and Dragic.
Well, they've had four games to "breathe" with Thomas out, get all the minutes they can handle, and yet the combination of Dragic and Bledsoe being the catalysts to winning a game has only happened once (last night against the Pacers).
I'm not "hating on" Dragic and Bledsoe here. Keep reading.
I love the Slash Brothers (
I coined the nickname! someone, most likely on Bright Side coined it, but that doesn't take away from my love for the Slashies just because it might possibly not have been me who first coined it), but the problem is two-fold: (1) they can't be expected to carry a team every single night and (2) opponents are geared up for them now.
"Maybe last year nobody was believing in us," Goran Dragic said. "So it was maybe easier because we didn't have so much pressure on us. This year everybody is expecting us to play well, to make the playoffs and of course it's a different story."
The Suns need a new wrinkle to play even better than a year ago, which is a must to even match their 48-win total. Because there's no more surprises this year when the Suns come to town. Teams get up for the Suns now.
"I think last year people didn't take us serious," Green said. "Now they do. I think that's the biggest difference. A lot of people didn't take us serious. Now they do."
Bad teams see a win over the Suns now as a major accomplishment. Good teams gear up for a war. While those teams began to feel that way a year ago, it wasn't ingrained in league mindset then as much as it is now.
And the Suns players need to be ready for it. So far, they're not quite ready for having a target on their backs.
"They were out to prove everybody wrong last year that we were supposed to only win 19 games," coach Hornacek said of the recent lackadaisical performances. "And so every night they went out there with a different attitude. Now I think for whatever reason we think we don't necessarily have to do that. If we just play our game and play well we will win the games. Doesn't happen like that in this league."
The win over Denver last week without Thomas saw the Slash Brothers combine for 41 points, 14 assists and 5 steals in 71 combined minutes, but it was Gerald Green's incredible energy and shotmaking performance that closed out the 8-point win. Green had 24 points, many of the spectacular variety.
Then the Suns laid eggs in Denver last Friday and at home against Orlando on Sunday with Dragic and Bledsoe playing poorly. The lament from the coaches and players as well was that the team lacked energy.
"Guys were great last year," Hornacek said. "They played with a chip on their shoulder. Maybe we're a year later and we're better and we're going to automatically win more games."
"Coach said it," Dragic said, "We are not such a talented team that we are going to score every time we get the ball. We are not San Antonio. So, we need to bring effort every night and try to play all 48 minutes. If we don't do that, those games are going to end like [the Orlando loss]."
It can help having another scorer in the lineup who can carry a team to a win, just like Dragic, Bledsoe and Green can. That way you're sharing the pressure of high performance among more players making the Suns a "much deeper team", as Dragic says.
Thomas has provided that spark quite often this season when the starters have come up short out of the gate. As Rollin wrote yesterday, the starting lineup has been a net-0 this year while many of the Thomas-led lineups have been a net-positive. Sure, Thomas is playing against backups often, but he's also finished several games because he's been playing so well the coach can't take him out.
In the win over the Lakers on November 4, Thomas and Green combined for 48 points in 53 minutes while Dragic and Bledsoe put up only 24 in 50 minutes. Thomas finished the game as the closed out the win.
In the win over Golden State on November 9, it was Thomas who led the charge as the Suns went on a 38-12 run to blow out the Warriors. That's still one of only two losses for the Warriors on the season. Thomas and Green combined for 41 points in 44 minutes, while Dragic and Bledsoe put up 27 in 51 minutes.
In the win over the Nets on November 12, Thomas and Green combined for 49 points in 49 minutes while Dragic and Bledsoe put up 29 points in 58 minutes of play. The Suns won by 8.
On the 4-2 road trip, the Suns had the luxury of evening out the minutes across the rotation and still get the wins they needed without overtaxing their stars. As much as Bledsoe and Dragic want to play 35+ minutes a night, that's tough to do at a high level on a long road trip. With Thomas in the lineup, the coach doesn't have to overplay his starters to get wins over struggling teams.
As evidenced over the weekend, with losses to Denver and Orlando, the Suns could have used another spark off the bench when Dragic and Bledsoe came out cold and/or lacked aggression.
It's good to see the Slash Brothers have a great game against Indiana on Tuesday.
"Finally, you know, we've been struggling a little bit," Bledsoe said after the Indiana win. "This game, really was easy for us. Goran had it going early and everybody else just helped him out. We played great as a team."
"Yeah, it's much easier when both of me and him, we are hot," Dragic said. "And the defense cannot stay focused on only one guy."
Maybe they can break out of their early-season funk and provide great minutes when they're out there together for the rest of the year. The Suns are fun to watch when Dragic and Bledsoe are breathing fire together as the Slash Brothers.
For starters, they need to start having fun again.
"We've got to get back to having fun," Suns guard Bledsoe said to Paul Coro at practice on Monday after the Orlando loss. "I think we're missing the bigger picture. Even the games we lost [last year], we had fun and gave ourselves a chance to win. I don't think we're giving ourselves a chance. We come out struggling."
Where the Suns will separate themselves from the pack this year, though, is adding even more firepower to their arsenal. And Isaiah Thomas is the one who can provide that.
It took a great effort by Bledsoe and Dragic to win a winnable game at home. The Suns were down 9 points in the second quarter despite Dragic being incredible to that point. And even Dragic knows games like the Indiana are few and far between.
"Like I said, every time when I touched the ball it feels great," Dragic said after scoring 34 points against Indiana. "Hopefully we're going to have a lot of games like that, but like players we know that it's probably two or three times a season."
As I highlighted above, the Suns might not even be as good as 11-8 at this point without Isaiah Thomas stepping up big in some wins. Dragic came out of the gate slow, just like he did last year, and Bledsoe spent a lot of time trying to prove he's a $70 million man before settling back into the Bledsoe we know and love in the past two weeks. The chemistry and performance was messed up. It's quite possible we'd have had a month full of games like this past week, or even worse, if Thomas wasn't on the team.
"At the end of the day, man, we are over .500," Green said on Sunday night (November 30) after the Orlando loss. "It's still November. We still have 4 months, 5 months of basketball left. We are just setting ourselves at a high note. We are setting high standards for ourselves. We just want to be the best we can be."
With all three of Thomas, Dragic and Bledsoe breathing fire, maybe this can still be a magical season.