Dallas takes care of business and the stretch run begins.
Can you guys believe that one week from tonight the NBA's regular season ends? Really no reason to get all weepy now though as the next 8 nights are probably going to be ridiculous night after ridiculous night.
So lets all dig in, band together and fly wildly and aimlessly towards our goal like an Ish Smith three point attempt.
Tuesday April 8th Key Western Conference Results:
Dallas Mavericks 95 Utah Jazz 83 (Recap) - Dallas made 94.1% of their shots in the 1st quarter (16/17) on their way to a 39-25 lead and never looked back. Dirk Nowitzki shockingly lead the Mavericks with 21 points (on 9/11 shooting) and in the process passed Oscar Robertson for 10th on the NBA's all-time scoring list - which is insane. 5 other Mavericks scored in double figures - including the apparently flame retardant Vince Carter who scored 13.
The Mavs now have just three games remaining in their season starting with the Tony Parker-less Spurs on Thursday. At least the Jazz will no longer figure in the playoff race.
Current Western Conference Standings:
|2. Oklahoma City
|3. LA Clippers
|4. Houston||52||25||.675||7.5||7-3||WON 3|
|6. Golden State
Wednesday April 9th Western Conference Games of Significance:
Suns @ Pelicans - Yes it's a road game, and yes the Pelicans have one of the 10 best players in the NBA, but no - there is no excuse for the Suns losing this game. Eric Gordon continues to be out for New Orleans and considering that he had 21 points on 7/10 shooting the last time our teams played I'm booking this as a good thing. As for the aforementioned top 10 player in the NBA - he's been dealing with back spasms and Monty Williams seemed to acknowledge he wasn't his normal self in the Pelicans last game.
Reports suggest Davis will play through the pain tonight but as a concerned citizen I would suggest he go ahead and take the night off.
Heat @ Grizzlies - Unlike many people, I actually really like the Miami Heat. I credit it to such a ridiculous amount of hate being thrown the way of LeBron James - a once in a generation player - that I can't help but adopt the contrarian position. But even if you hate the Heat you sure as hell better be rooting for them tonight. After this game Memphis has walk over dates with the 76ers and Lakers before coming to the Valley next Monday. If Memphis loses to Miami and the Suns take care of all Pelican related business, the Suns will have a 2 game lead with 4 to play.
Dwayne Wade probably remains out for the Heat but hopefully they come in motivated as their lead on Indiana for the top seed in the East is just half a game after Miami's loss to Brooklyn last night.
The Phoenix Suns (46-31) hope to hold onto their precarious, 1 game lead over the Memphis Grizzlies for the #8 playoff seed tonight, facing a banged up Pelicans squad (32-45) in New Orleans. The Pelicans are languishing through a five game losing streak, and have dropped all three of their contests versus the Suns this season. Can the Suns enjoy a cool, refreshing win at Smoothie King Center tonight? Or will they be left with a brain freeze?
With five games remaining and a razor-thin margin for error to secure one of the final playoff spots in the West, the Suns can't afford to squander their opportunity tonight against a struggling Pelicans team which features blossoming superstar Anthony Davis and little else. Davis has been suffering back spasms recently, and is questionable to play, while Eric Gordon will definitely not play, likely out for the remainder of the season.
After a five game winning streak, with four of the wins over playoff teams (Clippers, Nets, Heat and Hawks), the Pelicans have taken a hard slide by losing their last five, and are starting to look like a team mailing it in for the balance of the season.
Injuries have taken a toll on their chances, as Gordon appears to have joined Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday and Jason Smith as players who are now out for the season, while Davis has been playing, but not at 100%. When this season started, it was the Pelicans who were supposed to take a major step forward in the West rather than the Suns, but they have disappointed.
Meanwhile, the Suns have rounded into virtually full health since Eric Bledsoe's return as they make their final push towards a playoff spot. That the Suns are in this position with a roster that was picked by the vast majority of experts to be one of the worst teams in the league is a testament to the amazing offseason overhaul by GM Ryan McDonough, and masterful coaching performance by Jeff Hornacek.
McDonough and Hornacek are strong candidates for postseason honors, as are Gerald Green (Most Improved Player), Goran Dragic (All-NBA team) and Markieff Morris (6th Man of the Year). It has been that kind of a season for the Suns, unbelievable compared to last season's squad and expectations, yet it would leave a sour taste in everyone's mouth if this fantastic performance fell short of a playoff spot.
Some fun stats from this season's Suns so far:
That's an impressive list, and isn't comprehensive in detailing all the Suns player improvement from last season. Phoenix figures to pad some of those offensive stats tonight versus a Pelicans teams which fields the 27th ranked defense in the league with a D-Rating of 110.1.
When the teams last played in late February, Dragic scored 40 points on only 21 FGAs, and the Morris twins combined for 33 in a 116-104 Suns win. Except to see more offensive fireworks from a Suns team that has scored 108, 109 and 122 in its three April games so far, all versus Western Conference playoff teams.
Opposing coaches game plan to stop Dragic and Bledsoe from controlling the game, but very few have succeeded at that task. The combo of Bledsoe and Dragic have won 19 of their past 25 starts, including 9 of 12 in the most important stretch of the season.
For sure, the rebuilding Suns would trade one of the two talented point guards to remake the team in order to get back to the playoffs some day. I mean, who starts two point guards in today's NBA?
How about the NBA that requires matchup problems in order to win games. The more traditional your scheme, the easier it is to defend.
Rookie coach Jeff Hornacek quickly decided that his best matchup problem was playing the 6'1" Bledsoe and 6'3" Dragic side by side in a speedy, slashing offense built around off-ball movement, dribble-drives and spot-up three point shooting.
The team now resembles Jeff Hornacek as a player - unassuming, under-appreciated, but always moving and always doing whatever it takes to win the day.
In one season, McDonough and Hornacek transformed [the team] into your over-competitive cousin who needs to win every last board game at Thanksgiving and Christmas, regardless of how many family members leave with their feelings hurt. You know, the guy who insists on no bathroom breaks and absolutely no rule-bending, not even for the pre-teenage cousins. You wouldn't want to face the Suns in Scrabble, Parcheesi, Monopoly, Hearts, seven-card stud and definitely not Risk. Can you imagine how quickly Eric Bledsoe would conquer Australia? Would you really want to endlessly tussle with the Morris Twins for control of the Middle East?
The Blazers walked up the stairwell tonight, keys jingling, only to find the Suns waiting for them. Jeff Hornacek said, "Jerry". Terry Stotts replied, "Newman". And the knock-down, drag-out, brawl of the century was on. Unfortunately for Portland, the tubby mailman won this round as the Suns owned the final surge in a game filled with them, kicking the Blazers to the curb in a 109-93 romp.
Hornacek was exactly that kind of player in the NBA.
Hornacek came out of college as a mid-sized combo guard with a terrible-looking jump shot who transformed himself into an important player for any winning organization.
He remade that jump shot and became one of the best shooters in the history of the game. In 1991-1992, he became the first pure guard in NBA history to shoot 50% or better from the field and 40% or better on threes while taking enough shots to average at least 20 points per game.
But Hornacek didn't just shoot jumpers. For his career, he averaged 13.5 points, 4.9 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game over 15 NBA seasons spanning nearly 1,100 games.
And despite being a mere 6'3", he started at shooting guard 11 playoff teams in his 15 NBA seasons.
During those 11 playoff years, Hornacek played alongside two supremely talented, if undersized, point guards - Kevin Johnson and John Stockton. Both PGs were 6'1" on a good day, putting Hornacek's teams at a height disadvantage his entire career.
He made the All-Star team once, but more importantly played in four Western Conference Finals and two NBA Finals alongside those guys.
So as a rookie coach with the Phoenix Suns, there was no question in his mind that playing 6'3" Goran Dragic at shooting guard next to 6'1" Eric Bledsoe could win some games. He had an entire career of proof that it could work.
And work it did.
Five months later, the slashing combo of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe is 22-9 when they start together, and 22-7 when they both start AND finish the game. In those two losses, Dragic missed much of the fourth quarter due to injury.
They are also 15-0 when both Dragic and Bledsoe score 16+ points in the same game.
None of this could happen without Jeff Hornacek first convincing incumbent point guard Goran Dragic that it could work.
When I found out, I was like, "Oh my god! What is going on right now?", Dragic told Grantland.com's Zach Lowe recently. "The GM and the coach - they called me the next day. Coach Jeff [Hornacek] explained to me that he wanted us to play together, and be like the old Suns with two point guards like Jeff and KJ (Kevin Johnson).
When I found that out, I was kind of surprised. But at the same time, I couldn't wait to share. We had some trouble at first, trying to figure out those things. But me and Eric - we are really good friends. We talk a lot. And you can see that in how we play."
Dragic sees how the pairing has helped make him a better player, or at least have a more effective season. When last season ended, Dragic asked for another playmaker in their lineup. He had just played 82 games as the only dribble-drive threat on the team - a team that finished 29th in points per possession out of 30 teams.
He really likes having Bledsoe in the lineup with him.
"We tried, today, to attack Westbrook," he said after the win over the Thunder on Sunday night. "He is a great player, but sometimes he doesn't play defense so hard. So we tried to attack him. We know he's going to play a lot of minutes, he's going to be tired, so we tried to get after him."
You can't do that with only one threat in the lineup. The opponent can just move a better defender onto you. But when both starting guards are of the same mold, there's no hiding. Westbrook can't be rotated onto a big man, or he'd get abused in the paint. All that leaves is P.J. Tucker or Gerald Green or Marcus Morris, all who are bigger than Westbrook by a wide margin.
That's where the Suns attack the opponent. Nearly as effective as a deadly pick-and-roll combo is a dual pick-and-roll-or-pop five-man threat with two ball handlers and three shooters. Add in that one or two of those shooters are big men who can go down low for post-up opportunities and you've got a tough team to defend.
Just because the Suns are 29th in the league in assists doesn't mean they aren't in constant motion. As mentioned, they're a lot like the Thunder in that they just trust their guys to create a lot more, only they rely on a lot of off ball movement as well. Doing that allows them to get the defenders on their heels, which makes make driving to the rim and catching the defender off balance that much easier, as well as giving a better look at a pullup jumper if the defender can't gather in time for a closeout.
The wins didn't come right away, but soon after the start of the season Dragic realized the team could be pretty good. I asked him after the win over the Thunder if he thought being paired with Bledsoe would go as well as it has.
"If I'm honest, no," he said. "But I'm a positive person. The first time in games was really tough, because we didn't know who is getting the ball, who is playing pick and roll, but then when we figured out those things it was much easier and it was kind of fun. I get more space, he gets more space. So far it's working."
I asked if he would like to play with Bledsoe in the years to come.
"I hope so," he said without hesitation. "I hope so."
Have they talked about it at all, with their contract situations?
"No," he said. "We've been so focused on this season, trying to make the playoffs we didn't talk about our future yet. We'll see how it's gonna work out. We are in a good spot, a good situation, for Phoenix Suns basketball. That's between Bledsoe and the front office, so we'll see."
The offseason is a long way away, hopefully. Despite being 15 games over .500, the Suns are clinging to 8th place right now with Memphis just a game behind and Dallas just a half-game ahead. If the Suns make the playoffs, they could be playing for another month or more.
That their stellar 22-9 record together only represents 31 out of 77 possible games is the only blemish on such a wonderful season. Bledsoe has played just 38 games this year, missing 10 weeks due to knee ligament injury, coming off the bench for 4 and playing without Dragic for two others.
Bledsoe, just 24 and in his first year as a full time starter, also needs to mature in his work ethic and preparation as the seasons pass.
Hornacek developed his own game after coming into the league, and expects all young players to work on their shortcomings to improve year over year. Bledsoe is no exception.
"He's a competitor," Hornacek said of Bledsoe. "He's quite young. As he moves on in his career and as he continues to grow as a player, you figure out how to go through all the stages to be a better player. You look at some of the great players around the league, they practice hard. They are working on a part of their game that's not up to snuff. He's only been a couple years in the league. He'll learn all those things, and continue to get better."
Last summer, Hornacek had a second-year player (Kendall Marshall) and rookie (Archie Goodwin) who couldn't shoot the basketball. He dropped hints that each needed to sacrifice their shot and their ego to remake their stroke - a short-term loss for long-term gain. He specifically commented that Marshall needed to raise the release point on his shot in order to get it off once players started defending him, or he'd always be limited.
Marshall came to training camp in October with the exact same shooting motion Hornacek wanted him to correct. Goodwin, on the other hand, was deep into the rebuild. Goodwin was praised for his work ethic. Marshall was not.
Bledsoe is arguably one of the top 50 players in the NBA right now. He defends, scores and passes well enough to be a force on the court whenever he's out there. Where he needs to improve is his conditioning and his shooting stroke, to be more consistent and for longer stretches of time.
He will get there, and Hornacek will help him. For now, he's merely one of a two-headed Dragon laying waste to the NBA. As the season marches to the finish line, the Suns are gaining ground fast.
The Suns have won 10 of their last 13 games, and 19 of their last 25 with Dragic and Bledsoe starting together.
In those 31 games in the starting lineup, the Suns have learned a lot about themselves and how the two-headed ball handling monster can really tilt the scales in the Suns favor.
"Very difficult," coach Scott Brooks said of the Dragic/Bledsoe combo before the Thunder game on Sunday. "Bledsoe has been able to make threes more this year than he has in the past. Both guys' ability to catch and shoot, catch and drive, penetrate. They're both good playmakers too. And they're aggressive on the defensive end. It's problematic."
The Suns are playing playoff basketball right now, whether they qualify or not after five more tough, tough games.
Enjoy it, Suns fans. We haven't seen basketball this good in Phoenix in the last four years.
P.J. Tucker showed against the Oklahoma City Thunder why he is the Suns' "man of steel."
Goran Dragic entered dragon mode in the second quarter, scoring 19 points in the period and finishing with a team best 26 points. Gerald Green got red hot in the second half and scored 17 of his 24 points.
But the player of the game for the Suns was P.J. Tucker.
"He's always like that. Even in practice he's always battling...he's great for us," Dragic said after the win. "I've always said that hopefully he will stay here for a long time. He's such a warrior and we saw that tonight. He made some big shots ... some huge defensive rebounds for us and he's such a nice guy and great player."
As Dave recently wrote, the Suns are going to need Tucker at his best if they are going to make the playoffs, and they certainly got it on Sunday night. Tucker finished with 22 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks, and he did all of that while guarding the league's most unstoppable offensive force in Kevin Durant.
In college, Tucker made two total 3-pointers in his three-year career. Last season, he bumped that up to 22 made threes at a 31.4 percent clip.
Tucker worked hard this summer to reinvent himself as a 3-point threat, and that hard work has paid off for both him and the Suns this season as he is shooting 40 percent with almost all of them coming from the corners.
Against the Thunder, Tucker hit a career-high four 3-pointers on just five attempts, and the fifth nearly went in as well.
Tucker's transformation into a shooter has been a big part of the Suns' success this season. Dragic and Eric Bledsoe's driving ability force teams to rotate over to cut off penetration out of isolation or the pick-and-roll, and Tucker is often the guy left open. This season, he has made teams pay for that, and he did it four times against Oklahoma City.
Tucker wasn't just a shooter in this game, however. He earned his way back into the league on the strength of his heart, hustle and defensive activity, and the 6-foot-5-inch forward showcased all of that against the Thunder. Tucker stuffed the box score with two buckets in the post, one on a cut, a team-best seven rebounds and four stocks in addition to the four triples.
Tucker was all over the court all night long and made a handful of crucial plays.
If you notice in the videos, roughly half of his highlights came in the fourth quarter. Tucker stepped his game up late and scored 11 of his points and pulled down four of his rebounds in the final 11-and-a-half minutes. He recorded one 3-pointer, one layup, three free-throws, three rebounds, one steal and helped force another turnover all in the last five minutes after the game was knotted at 105 apiece.
He also did all of this while guarding likely MVP Kevin Durant all night. Durant scored 38 points, but he's capable of doing that against anyone. However, while Tucker needed five tries to make his four treys, it took Durant a career-high 15 attempts to match him. A lot of that was simply Durant missing shots, but Tucker's relentless and physical style of defense can really effect an opponent's legs and it is hard to shoot while tired.
Tucker was the MVP of this game, putting up big numbers while matching up with the MVP of the entire league. While his per game averages don't stand out, games like this show he is capable of stepping up in big games when teams need him most. His impact also extends beyond the court.
In addition to all the 3-pointers, rebounds and defensive stops, Tucker is also a team leader, something head coach Jeff Hornacek has said repeatedly.
"He is our emotional leader in terms of playing hard," Hornacek said. "He is constantly on guys ... because he plays hard. This year he has come into the year and made his corner threes. I think he made four of them over there. And, we all know about his defense. Defensively, we put him on the best players that are on the other team. He has to work all game long to try and stop those guys and than we ask him to score a little bit too. He has been invaluable for us."
In his post game interview, Dragic called Tucker a "man of steel." After last night's game and everything he's done over the past two years, I can't think of a more fitting nickname.