Recapping the Western Conference action in the Suns chase for the playoffs

Remember when you were a kid and the worst possible thing your mother could say to you was "I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed."

Well for me personally that doubles as my emotion from last night.  Our plucky band of underdogs have been so impressive, so fun, and so engaged all season that seeing them collapse against a terrible team at the most inopportune time was just one enormous disappointment.

Anyway - they say the best way to get past disappointment is to read a basketball results summary full of throwaway jokes so lucky for you I've made one for you.

Sunday March 30th Key Western Conference Results:

Los Angeles Lakers 115 Phoenix Suns 99 (Recap) - Woof.  The Lakers were on their 3rd game in 4 nights, coming off a road trip that featured a loss to the Bucks and giving up 143 points to the T'Wolves, and without Pau Gasol and pretty much every other player that made them relevant - yet they routed the Suns.  Chris Kaman scored 28 points and grabbed 17 rebounds - something he had literally never accomplished in an NBA game before.  But he did it last night - at the age of 31. Against a Suns team that was playing for their playoff lives.  For the Suns, everyone missed every shot and they all took naps or drank mimosas on the defensive end while day dreaming of a summer beach vacation (depending on the possession of course).

New York Knicks 89 Golden State Warriors 84 (Recap) - The Suns were really the only thing that saved the Full Squaders from the most embarrassing loss of the night.  New York was fresh off getting smoked in Phoenix but managed to come into Full Squad State and defeat the Warriors despite a 7/21 shooting performance from Carmelo Anthony.  The Dubs were without David Lee and Andrew Bogut - a fact no Warriors fan will tell you because they hate excuses but outside of Steph Curry's 32 points (6/12 from three) they got very little production from anyone.  The Knicks used a dominate 34-12 second quarter to take a 12 point halftime lead but in typical NBA fashion this one came down to the wire.  Trailing by 3 with 5 seconds remaining, Curry attempted to pass to Draymond Green but had his pass stolen by Suns legend Shannon Brown - sealing the win for the Knicks.  Yes that's right folks - we're at the point of the season where Shannon Brown is helping our playoff hopes.

Portland Trail Blazers 105 Memphis Grizzlies 98 (Recap) -  3 games ago the Blazers seemed like they were a mess.  3 games ago it seemed like Portland could quite easily free fall their way out of the Western Conference playoff race and into the annals of collapsing legend.  Then they beat Atlanta on the road, then dominated Chicago on the road, and finished it out by pretty much dominating Memphis.  Portland is now 3.5 games clear of falling out of the race with the Lakers, Pelicans, Jazz, and Kings still remaining on their schedule.  I think that means we're done here.  Memphis on the other hand is quite the different story.  After falling to Portland the Grizz have now lost two of those "swing" games in a row (what I'm calling any game between the 5-9 spots in the West) but have Denver and Minnesota on the schedule next.

Current Western Conference Standings:

TEAM W L PCT GB L10 STREAK
1.San Antonio
57 16 .781 - 10-0 WON 17
2. Oklahoma City
54 19 .740 3
8-2 WON 2
3. LA Clippers
52 22 .703 5.5 8-2 WON 2
4. Houston 49 23 .681 7.5 6-4 LOST 1
5. Portland
48 27 .635 10 6-4 WON 3
6. Golden State
45 28 .616 12 6-4 LOST 1
7. SUNS
44 30 .595 13.5 8-2 LOST 1
8. Dallas
44 30 .595 13.5
6-4 WON 1
- Dallas
43 30 .589 14 6-4 LOST 2

Monday March 31st Western Conference Games of Significance:

Grizzlies @ Nuggets -  This is the only one tonight.  The Nuggets have been playing respectable ball since Ty Lawson returned from injury (7-7 with wins over the Clippers and Mavericks) but you've got to think they're hitting the point of their season when various key players will be resting with maladies such as scurvy or legionnaires disease.  Denver is better at home and I think it would be pretty swell if they were to hold off Memphis tonight but road game or not playoff teams usually win games like this, right?  Too soon?  With a win Memphis can force and three way tie with the Suns and Mavs for 7th.


Worst loss of the season.

The Phoenix Suns, riding high on a six game winning streak, crashed back down to earth with a brutal loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, 115-99. This game was just a beatdown from the beginning and the Suns never really got close after the initial few minutes, save for a brief moment early in the second quarter.

The Suns looked completely out of sorts and it often appeared as if they were sleepwalking through game. Therefore, I decided it was only fitting I write this recap under the heavy influence of NyQuil (my medicine of choice to deal with a flu-like illness as well as Suns-induced symptoms of disgust and nausea.

This game sucked.

First Quarter

In my preview for the game, I poked fun at Chris Kaman pretending to nap on the Lakers' bench during a game several weeks ago. Well, he decided to go ahead and have his best game of the season today. Right from the start, Kaman looked active and energized, firing shot after shot early in the game and simply taking Miles Plumlee to school. In fact, it was the Suns who looked like they were laying down early, as they just couldn't get into an offensive rhythm and made matters worse by playing putrid defense against the juggernauts on LA's roster.

Goran Dragic was the only Sun that played anything that resembled the sport of basketball in the early going--while The Dragon went 3-5 in the first, the non-Slovenian players on the Suns shot 17%. Phoenix shot just 25% as a whole against the second-worst defense in the NBA and they found themselves trailing 26-15 after one.

Second Quarter

The Suns began the second period on a better note and managed to cut the Lakers lead to just three after a three-pointer from Marcus Morris.

With Phoenix trailing 31-28, I decided to head to the pharmacy to purchase some NyQuil because I don't like being sick. As I was checking out, I pulled up the score on my phone and saw the Suns were trailing by 18. I contemplated purchasing some Crown Royal as well to destroy my memories of this game enjoy its great, smooth taste. But alas, I just bought extra NyQuil to prepare for the second half. I have no idea what happened in the second quarter but I imagine it went something like this:

Slam-dunk_medium

Third Quarter

One would expect the Phoenix Suns (who have shown the ability to adjust and come back from setbacks all season) to come out angry and aggressive in the second half to try and attack the Lakers and their 18 point lead. One would also expect Jordan Hill's hair to be a physical impossibility...but one would be wrong in both these instances.

The following stretch at the start of the third quarter tragically sums up the entire game:

On the first possession of the second half, the Suns committed a 24 second shot clock violation (because, you know, when one of the worst teams in the NBA outscores you by 18 in one half and you spend halftime reviewing what went wrong and where to make adjustments, failing to even put up a shot on the very first possession of the second half is a wonderfully sound strategy).

Then Chris Kaman scored again.

Then Channing Frye missed a contested jumpshot.

Then Kendall Marshall made an extremely awkward jump-layup in typical Kendall Marshall format.

Then PJ Tucker missed a wide open three pointer.

Then PJ Tucker fouled Kent Bazemore on a three point attempt. Kent Bazemore.

Then I realized I couldn't breathe out of my nose so I took some NyQuil--also, I wanted to get a better sense of what it felt like to be as loopy as the Phoenix Suns looked to be tonight.

Fourth Quarter

After winning the third period 31-28, the Suns faced a 15 point deficit heading into the fourth. They managed to cut the lead to 10 or so at one point, but never really made it interesting. Chris Kaman (28 points and 17 rebounds!!!!!!), Jodie Meeks (22 points) and Kendall Marshall (13 points and 11 assists) were just too much for the Suns to overcome.*

*Writing that last sentence made me want to throw up.

Notes

  • This was probably Eric Bledsoe's worst game since returning from injury. He looked totally out of sync with the offense, often pressed too much and his shot was as off as I've ever seen it. He finished with 10 points and 4 assists (thanks to an 8-11 effort from the free throw line) but shot just 1-9 from the field and turned the ball over 4 times.
  • Goran Dragic, Gerald Green, the Morris twins and Ish Smith were the only Suns players that had better-than-terrible games tonight, and even most of them had below-average nights. The rest of the team was pretty much awful.
  • The Suns shot 38.5% from the field and 22.2% from three, while giving up a 53% shooting night to LA. Ugly.
  • The Suns let Ryan Kelly get an and-one dunk today. UGLY.
  • This is a photoshop I made before the game of Miles Plumlee and Jordan Hill with their hairstyles swapped. I probably spent more effort on this than the Suns exerted in a 48 minute NBA game, and I spent very minimal effort on this:
Bkbnfrjcuaadnvv_medium

This was just an all-around awful effort from the Suns tonight, one that was reminiscent of last year's team. Fortunately for Phoenix, the Grizzlies lost to Portland and the Warriors dropped a game at home to the lowly Knicks, so the Suns were able to maintain their #7 position in the Western Conference.

But a loss to this Lakers team, especially in the manner this game was played in, is worrisome for a Suns squad that has a tough 8 games remaining. In the end though, this was just one game.

They're going to have to forget this game quickly  and come out with a much better performance at home against the Clippers on Wednesday. Oh, and by the way, those Clippers beat the Lakers by 48 points earlier in March.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go pass the **** out.
The Suns mixed up their defensive assignments in transition defense and lost the Lakers on backdoor cuts. Chris Kaman scored 28 points, grabbed 17 rebounds and added six assists. Mike...

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The Suns mixed up their defensive assignments in transition defense and lost the Lakers on backdoor cuts. Chris Kaman scored 28 points, grabbed 17 rebounds and added six assists. Mike...

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In a season of wild collective accomplishment there has been prodigious individual achievement from a slew of Suns. Given the ascendance of so many players is there a correct answer as to which player has grown the most on this team?

When you read the title did an answer pop right into your head? Does one individual step into the forefront?

For me it isn't quite that simple. Just as the criteria for the most valuable player in the league is still somewhat nebulous to me to this very day, the selection process for most improved can be muddled by the intangible. How does one measure leadership, maturity and consistency? Does a rise to stardom trump the revival of a career?

The amelioration on the Suns is so rampant that I will be largely evading a player who has risen from D-League obscurity to become a valuable starter on one of the better teams in the league. A player who mitigated his offensive deficiencies by reinventing himself as a corner three threat that hits to a 40%+ tune. A player whose formidable brawn is exceeded only by his indomitable resolve. P.J. Tucker is one of the better testaments to the fruits of labor in the league... and even though he always seems to grab every loose ball he won't snare the honors of the most improved player on the team (in my estimation).

Here are the players, in no particular order, who I think have advanced by bounds and leaps this season.

Goran Dragic

Dragic was the most polished of this aggregate going into the season. Last season debates raged on this site over exactly where he ranked among starting point guards in this league. The consensus seemed to be that he was somewhere in the average to slightly above average range.

The season he has had makes those discussions seem almost silly.

Dragic_3

This season Dragic has compiled averages of 20.6 points, 6.0 assists, a .616 TS% and a .201 WS/48. Only Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson and LeBron James have had at least as good of numbers in those four categories in a season. Not only is Goran dynamite from the field, but he is 13th in the league in free throw attempts per game (5.6). The One Man Fast Break is also the main reason the Suns are first in the league in fast break points and second in fast break efficiency.

Despite not being named an All-Star, it would seemingly be an impossible stretch of the imagination that he will not earn his first All-NBA team selection. Although there weren't clear indicators of a meteoric rise to this type of apogee, Goran had been on a steady incline over the past couple seasons and had played at an elite level over stretches. The peak of his play has been higher this season, but what has impressed me most is the duration of this level of play. Those stretches of exceptional play have become nightly occurrences.

One of my favorite parts of this season for Goran was when he set career highs for scoring three times in an eight game stretch against Golden St., Houston and New Orleans. Goran has also become the answer to a question that was asked at the beginning of the season - Whose team is this?

Eric Bledsoe

Bledsoe came into the season shouldering the burden of big expectations. Hindered by an injury in his sophomore season and the predicament of playing in the shadow of Chris Paul in his third, Eric hadn't seen nearly as much court time as most players of his perceived potential. Despite his freakish athleticism and other salient talents, questions bounced around about his ability to play as a true point guard as the dreaded "tweener" label was whispered about in the shadows of dark corners.

Bledsoe proved those concerns to be completely unfounded as he instead immediately gave credibility to those who gushed over his high ceiling.

Bledsoe_3

In terms of raw per game numbers, Bledsoe's increases jump off the page. But there are several areas in addition to this where his unique talent is revealed.

Bledsoe has shined for the Suns in spotlight situations this season. He is not of a diffident nature that shrinks from the moment. His assertiveness not only lets him take and make big shots in the fourth quarter, but it combines with his strength and speed to allow him to get to the rim, draw fouls and finish after contact. He is like a cannonball shooting through the lane. Defenders are helpless to stay in front of him and once they are side to side he creates separation with a chiseled physique. That's if he's not already past them.

Bledsoe nearly tripled his free throw attempts per game because of this dynamic, averaging 5.3 per contest. Despite being hampered by injuries, Eric has shown plenty in limited time to show that this season may just be the tip of the iceberg. The team is 24-10 with him in the lineup and the 24 year old Bledsoe has still been a full time starter for less than half of an NBA season.

Markieff Morris

Going into this season I thought Markieff was a player afflicted with an identity crisis. He appeared to be very content with a mismatched role as a stretch four who couldn't shoot. His biggest plus, that often translates well from college to the pros, was rebounding and even that was middling at best. I wasn't a huge fan of his body language or the way he comported himself last season. He found himself squarely in the mix of a group of players that had been pegged, fairly or unfairly, as having effort and/or entitlement issues.

I wasn't alone in my opinion that this would be another largely forgettable season for Markieff on his road to a career pathway of end of the bench journeyman irrelevance. That script got flipped.

Markieff_3

I think Markieff greatly benefited from the coaching/culture change here in Phoenix. It was like he got a fresh start in a brand new environment without even moving lockers. Morris's numbers have improved across the board, but maybe most significant are his increases in scoring and offensive efficiency. This hasn't all been a happy coincidence, though. Besides Markieff's hard work there has been a systematic focus towards making him a better player by exlpoiting his strengths on the offensive end.

Markieff is taking better shots. Better shots tend to have a higher likelihood of going in the basket. Markieff is practicing those shots to make them at a higher rate.

Last season Morris took about 45% of his shots from 16 feet or further away from the basket. This season that has dropped to about 33%. In fact, Markieff is taking over half of his shots at the rim and in the 10'-16' range. These are his best zones by shooting percentage. His conversion rate at the rim has increased from 59% to 66%. The 10'-16' shot has increased from 29% to 48%.

Morris has scored in double digits in 33 of his last 36 games. He has become the leader and steadying presence for the bench unit. He has embraced this role, too, instead of becoming a malcontent for not being inserted in the starting lineup. His maturity has been a key part of his overall growth.

Gerald Green

Green was a castaway coming into this season. A case study of unfulfilled promise. His claim to fame was being the answer to the trivia question of which player was the last to enter the NBA straight from high school before the rule was changed to disallow this practice. He carried the ignominy of being the last in a line of failed careers of high school draftees that were part of the argument against letting precocious players in the league at such an early age.

He had bounced around to seven NBA teams and overseas. He was traded to the Suns for salary matching reasons. He has been worth every penny.

Green_3

Where would this team be without Gerald Green? Probably not in the playoff hunt they find themselves serendipitously entangled in. Gerald answered the bell early in the season by filling in for Bledsoe when he was down with minor injuries. Even during this relatively brief period Green shook the label of ineffective bit role player and became a solid contributing starter. Then, when tasked with filling the vacuous void that was left in the wake of a more severe injury, Green was up to the task again.

Green has averaged 17 points per game in his 47 starts this season. In six previous seasons he started 50 games. I would argue that Green may have been the second most important player in keeping this team afloat through the meat and potatoes of the season. The Suns are 14-6 when Gerald scores at least 20 points. When he finds a rhythm it is absolutely electric.

Once again, Green is a player who is being coached to his strengths. He is averaging 6.2 three point attempts per game. That is 10th most in the NBA and accounts for more than half of his overall field goal attempts. He is doing what he is being asked to do and has mostly not tried to do too much.

Choices, Choices...

Although it is hard for me to choose between players with nearly coterminous advancement, I think that I would give the nod to Markieff Morris. Of the four, he hasn't done the most this season, but he had shown me the least coming into it. Dragic was already at least a very competent starter. Many people had Bledsoe pegged as a player on the rise. Even Gerald Green had a small sample size in New Jersey that provided a glimmer of hope. Markieff, though, may have been more of a victim of circumstance.

Circumstances have changed.

And there is still enough season left that it's possible I might change my mind about who is the most improved before the Suns have played their final game.

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Who is the Suns most improved player?

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