The Phoenix Suns continued a disturbing trend by starting another game lacking focus, but still managed to claw back and stun the Minnesota Timberwolves in a game that went right down to the wire.
It took Eric Bledsoe 63 whole seconds to pick up two fouls and head to the bench. With him sidelined, Goran Dragic shouldered the early load by pinballing a three pointer around the inside of the rim before it finally went through, then scoring on a twisting, pivoting move inside the lane. Corey Brewer was leading the charge for Minnesota with two wide open fast break dunks and a corner three.
The Suns jumped to a 9-6 lead, but things quickly deteriorated as Minnesota reeled off a 27-7 run. The Suns pernicious combo of porous defense (allowing 64% shooting) and poor ball security (seven turnovers) allowed the Timberwolves to feast with a pack mentality. Gerald Green didn't seem too interested in taking his share of the early pummeling, as he picked up three early fouls and joined Bledsoe on the bench for extra rest and reflection.
The Suns ended up giving up 41 points in the quarter. 41. Kevin Love led the stampede with 10 points, six rebounds and five assists.
First Quarter: Timberwolves 41, Suns 27
The Wolves continued the onslaught, scoring eight straight to start the second and push their lead to 22. When Dante Cunningham dunked a lob pass that Ricky Rubio threw up from behind the three point line Minnesota had already scored 18 points off of Suns turnovers in less than 15 minutes of basketball.
The Morris brothers were trying to keep it close, as they scored 17 consecutive points for the Suns to bridge the first and second quarters. A 12-2 burst by Phoenix pulled the Suns within 12 (53-41) as they prevented the game from getting completely away from them. From there on the teams appeared content to trade baskets, a strategy that seemed more sagacious from the perspective of the team leading by double digits.
The Suns were able to close the game to 11, the closest they had been all quarter, when P.J. Tucker serendipitously ended up with a loose ball that Bledsoe kicked away and heaved it up for a three at the buzzer.
Markieff Morris finished the half with 15 points and five rebounds and the Suns also got solid contributions from Marcus and Ish Smith off the bench. Love scored nine more in the second quarter to give him a game high 19. Phoenix accomplished the dubious feat of trailing by 11 points despite shooting 61% from the field in the first half. Minnesota outscored Phoenix 23-5 on points off of turnovers and was +10 at the free throw line.
At least it was pretty easy to see what Phoenix needed to shore up.
Halftime: Timberwolves 73, Suns 62
Kevin Martin kicked off the second half festivities with a wide open three pointer from the corner. Maybe the Suns were practicing missing that rotation at halftime? The Suns looked a little more engaged after that, though, and suddenly cut the lead to six after back-to-back and-one three point plays by Bledsoe and Tucker.
The Timberwolves were getting their offense from Kevin Love and technical free throws, as both Tucker and Suns assistant coach Mike Longabardi drew the ire of the referees. Free throws period were sustaining the Wolves, as they hit eight of them sandwiched around a Love three.
The Suns kept chipping away and Markieff twice cut the deficit to five points before Minnesota whirled off a 7-0 run in less than a minute to pull back ahead 94-82. Every time the Suns appeared on the cusp of making things really interesting they failed to get a stop or made some kind of mental mistake... like Gerald Green getting whistled for the Suns third technical foul of the quarter for taunting after he made a three to cut the lead to eight (99-91) near the end of the period.
The Kevin's (Martin and Love) were a combined 19-21 from the free throw line as the Wolves held a 25-9 scoring advantage there... and the Suns kept on gifting them trips.
Third Quarter: Timberwolves 103, Suns 93
The intensity the Suns had so sorely lacked at the beginning of the game was clearly evident at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The tone of the game seemed to be that Phoenix was clawing to get back in while Minnesota was clinging to a narrowing margin.
With 7:13 remaining Goran Dragic hit a three over the outstretched arms of a defending Kevin Love and the Suns had climbed all the way up the mountain to lead 107-106. There was a hush over the crowd and a fire burning in the eyes of the visiting Suns.
The free flowing offense the Wolves enjoyed through three quarters was uglied up by a suddenly turned tenacious defense. The stark contrast from their defense earlier makes it hard to decide whether to criticize them for the earlier play or credit them for the latter. They probably deserve both.
The Wolves responded to the Suns' surge, though, and there were five lead changes over the next five minutes. Kevin Love scored on an improbable circus shot that he heaved in the general direction of the basket while being fouled and then hit his free throw to put Minnesota up 116-115. Moments later Tucker floated in a tear drop from the baseline to knot things back up at 118.
On the next possession Love had the ball knocked loose as Markieff defended and Bledsoe broke free for a layup at the other end. After another stop by a suddenly dominating defensive squad Phoenix was able to secure the huge comeback victory by hitting their free throws in the closing moments.
Final Score: Suns 127, Minnesota 120
Obviously Kevin Love had another monster game, but Markieff was instrumental in helping the Suns hang around early when Minnesota threatened to turn the game into a laugher and late when he helped the Suns finish off their dramatic comeback. Morris finished with 25 points and eight rebounds.
This was a game the Suns absolutely had to have. They still have their work cut out to get to playing 48 minutes of consistent basketball, but they showed enough moxie to hint that they might be on their way. They're far from perfect, but they're still fighting hard.
Phoenix has won four of their last five games, but it feels like they've only played well once in the past two weeks. After sweeping two at home, a tougher opponent on the road will require that the Suns bring a much better effort.
When: Sunday March, 23, 2014, 12:30 PM local time (3:30 EST)
Where: Target Center, Minneapolis, MN
Watch/Listen: TV: FSNAZ Radio: 620 AM/98.7 FM KTAR
Minnesota got the best of Phoenix at US Airways Center back on February 25th with a come from behind 110-101 victory. The Suns actually led 91-83 with 7:30 remaining before being waylaid to the tune of 27-10 in one of the team's most spectacular blow ups of the season.
Kevin Love nearly notched a triple double for the Timberwolves with 33 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists. Love and Corey Brewer, who scored 18, had 17 of Minnesota's points in the run to close the game. Then there was Shabazz Muhammad. He managed to score 20 of the 100 points he has scored the entire season in one game against the Suns. In his other 28 games Muhammad has averaged 2.9 points per game... meaning he scored seven games worth of points against Phoenix.
It turns out this was not my favorite game of the season.
P.J. Tucker was a bright spot for the Suns as he managed to corral a career high 16 rebounds. His herculean effort helped give the Suns a dominating 50-38 edge on the boards. Markieff Morris led the Suns with 24 points. Incidentally, the Suns made a season low of just three 3-pointers in the game (3-15 from deep). It seemed to me like that may have had something to do with the loss, but they've had three games where they only made four 3-pointers and they're 2-1 in those...
I guess I'll just have to pin the loss on the collapse instead.
The teams also met back on January 8th in Minnesota. That was a much better game.
Channing Frye basically made Kevin Love his, well, you know... holding him to just 4-20 shooting. Gerald Green hit a cold-blooded game winner from the baseline with four seconds left to give the Suns a 104-103 victory.
This will be the third and final meeting between the teams.
Minnesota Timberwolves: 34-33
Points per game: 106.3 (4) Points allowed: 103.1 (23)
ORtg: 108.8 (9) DRtg: 105.5 (11)
Minnesota's disappointing season sees them participating in the stretch run of the season playing the role of "not mathematically eliminated." But even though their postseason chances are minuscule, I saw them around ~4% on one predictive model, they can definitely play the role of spoiler for the teams competing directly ahead of them. In fact, Minnesota just did the Suns a huge solid by handing the Dallas Mavericks a demoralizing loss in overtime on Wednesday night.
Despite getting bludgeoned 126-109 by the Houston Rockets in their last game, the Wolves have actually been playing pretty good ball lately and have gone 10-5 since hitting their nadir of the season at four games below .500 (24-28). Minnesota likes to push the ball (fourth in the league in pace) and can find the basket without a map and compass, so look for them to challenge the Suns' renascent defense that stymied the vaunted Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons.
Nikola Pekovic is questionable for the game with an ankle injury. Gorgui Dieng had 22 points and 21 rebounds last game while keeping his spot in the starting lineup warm.
Phoenix Suns: 40-29
Points per game: 105.2 (7) Points allowed: 102.7 (22)
ORtg: 109.2 (8) DRtg: 106.6 (15)
The Phoenix Suns have only played about one quarter of inspired basketball out of the last two games combined. That was enough to defeat two very bad basketball teams.
The Suns allowed the Orlando Magic to hang around for three quarters and actually trailed 75-74 before spontaneously combusting and torching the shorthanded Magic with a 23-3 run. A Magic team without their starting point guard and center. A Magic team with the worst road record (4-33) in the entire NBA.
I had the pleasure of watching the game in person, but it was definitely of the genre that if you watched it on DVR you might find yourself fast forwarding through the game to watch the commercials. I guess it was kind of nice that the arena was quiet enough that I could converse with the people next to me in library voices... Don't you just hate it when the crowd is so loud you have to yell?
There was a little bit more brio and vim at USAC on Friday for Star Wars night. The Suns (franchise) really did themselves proud with the production of that event. The Suns (players) were a little bit less impressive as they struggled to get past a Pistons team that might lose a free throw shooting contest to a grade school squad. That level of ineptitude is insulting to the brand of the game. The Pistons should be ashamed of themselves.
Since 1985-86 there has only been one team that had a worse percentage from the line with at least as many attempts. On February 11, 2005 the Orlando Magic went 10-27 from the line, granting the Pistons relief from owning the dubious distinction.
Overall, the level of intensity and quality of the game was superior to the Magic fiasco. The home crowd actually got down right obstreperous down the stretch as they cheered the Suns to victory. Bledsoe did his part to garner the noise as he poured in 15 in the fourth quarter to propel the Suns to victory.
The common theme between the games was a general malaise that almost made the Suns seem disinterested at times. The Suns were lucky they played who they did because they wouldn't have beaten many teams playing they way they did.
Kevin Love - I had to fit him in here somewhere. It's probably not entirely coincidental that he was completely negated in the Suns win and went off in the Suns loss. Hopefully the Suns can make him feel uncomfortable again. I have no qualms at all with Channing Frye and Tucker getting as chippy as possible within the spirit of the rules.
Eric Bledsoe - Let's see if Eric can build on the fourth quarter of the Pistons game and bring that type of presence to the court earlier on. A complete game from him would be huge and might help the Suns get off to an...
Early Start - Not just the game time, the type of way the Suns need to get off the block. A week ago, the Suns seemed perfectly fine playing a day game and had one of their more solid recent outings. They put up 37 in the first quarter and seemed engaged from the outset. Hopefully the can duplicate that effort, as they have been less effervescent in the three games since then.
Ideally, the Suns will win this one going away so the Timberwolves will have a chance to empty the bench and keep their starters fresh for a back-to-back at Memphis on Monday night. Given the recent struggles the team has had at finishing off lesser opponents, though, any kind of win will suffice.
The Suns haven't been playing lots of clean games, but they have been winning enough to keep themselves in the hunt. Hopefully this is buying them enough time to shake out of the funk that I still feel is very much present despite their current 4-1 stretch.
Phoenix did good enough to get past a couple very beatable teams at home, but the Suns flat out need to play better.
The Suns helped their chances of making the playoffs this week, going 3-1 overall, and improving to just half a game behind the Grizzlies for the 8th seed. While these wins weren't necessarily statement games, they were necessary victories that ensured that Phoenix remains in the race. So who stepped up the most to help the Suns this week?
The NBA is all about which player and team can rule the court in the most epic fashion and Bright Side of the Sun has teamed up with Crown Royal to rank the best of the best Phoenix Suns players each and every week. Which player(s) ruled the court this week? #ReignOn
Weekly Stat Averages:
Minutes: 31 Points: 17.5 FG%: 54% 3FG%: 54% Assists: 4.25 Rebounds: 1.5 Steals: 1.5
Just like every other week, Goran Dragic was once again awesome. Is it even a surprise any longer that Dragic can continue to play at such a high level, night in and night out? Probably not, but it should be.
So just how well is Dragic playing? Well, besides Dwyane Wade who is somehow shooting an incredible 54.6% from the field, Dragic comes in second among all guards this season in efficiency, averaging 51.0%. This week was more of the same...actually slightly better. He not only averaged 54% from the field overall, but also from beyond the arc.
While Dragic was actually second in scoring this week, narrowly beat out by Gerald Green, he was still the most consistent, and provided the Suns with the kind of selective scoring that helped the team win some crucial games this week to keep them in the playoff hunt.
Weekly Stat Averages:
Minutes: 26 Points: 17.75 FG%: 47% 3FG%: 50% Rebounds: 2.75 Assists: 1.0 Steals: 1.0
If there is a better success story in the NBA this season than what Gerald Green has accomplished, I haven't heard it yet. The former career journeyman who is on his 7th NBA team in just as many years has seemingly found the perfect fit, and continues to be one of the biggest scoring threats to don the purple and orange.
With Bledsoe returning to the starting line-up after injury, many were concerned how it would affect Green who would relinquish his starting role and resume coming off the bench. At first, it seemed that Gerald indeed struggled to make the transition, but after just a week or so, he once again found his rhythm and picked right back up where he left off in his new role.
Although he averaged nearly five minutes less per game than Dragic this week, he was once again the leading scorer for the Suns. His torrid shooting and momentum-swinging dunks have become one of the biggest boosts to the team, and he is registering those points at a very efficient rate as well.
Weekly Stat Averages:
Minutes: 30 Points: 15.5 FG%: 56% Rebounds: 6.25 Assists: 1.75 Steals: 1.0
As unlikely as it may have seemed just a year ago, Keef continues to be the epitome of consistency for the Suns this season. Playing as a reserve while receiving starter's minutes, Markieff has arguably become the third best player on the team, and has been helping the Suns in a variety of ways.
Not only is Markieff giving the Suns an inside scoring presence, while also providing much needed rebounding, he has also improved his defense as well. In addition, he is not only playing the power forward position, but has done extremely well playing the five in the Suns' small-ball line-up, which has proven to be one of their best line-ups overall.
While Markieff didn't lead the Suns in scoring or rebounding this week (but came close in both categories), he continues to give the Suns one of the most well-rounded performances.
So who do you think deserves to be named the "Suns' Player of the Week"? Vote in the poll below and explain your choice in the comment section.
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Remember, our readers will also have a chance to receive some Crown Royal swag to help you Reign On, too, on the street, basketball court or just in your living room. More to come soon.