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PHOENIX — Eric Bledsoe has been making strides toward returning to the court in recent weeks and on Monday it became a reality. The 6-foot-1 guard played a 3-on-3 game at practice in his first...

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Recapping the week that was, reviewing the news & notes, taking a look at Suns history, updating the 2014 NBA Draft Watch, and previewing the week ahead... Welcome to the Center of the Sun.

There is not much more you can ask for coming out of the All-Star Break for a team than going 3-1 and playing at a high level. The Phoenix Suns (33-22) are playing very well and going into this week have a chance to catch-up with a few of the contenders that are currently in front of them. More on that later in the preview at the bottom.

Game Recaps

@ Denver Nuggets - W (OT 112-107) Full Recap

vs. Boston Celtics - W (100-94) Full Recap

vs. San Antonio Spurs - W (106-85) Full Recap

vs. Houston Rockets - L (108-110) Full Recap

One thing that defines a good team is how they play against the teams that are currently below them or in the lottery picture. This week the Suns dumped two clear lottery teams and split against two contenders that are ahead of them.

The Suns took care of the Nuggets and then the Celtics before dismantling the short-handed Spurs at home.

It was impressive how the Suns did not play too relaxed against the bottom teams and even more impressive how they did not take their boot off the Spurs that were visibly not the Spurs we are used to seeing. So often teams let off the gas and let short-handed or bad teams back in the game giving them false confidence that they can win. A mark of a truly good team is not doing that.

Gerald Green was a monster this past week with a 36 point outburst against the Nuggets while averaging 22.3 points per game (2.5 threes a night) and 5.0 per rebounds per game.

With Eric Bledsoe potentially returning in the near future having a confident Green shooting and scoring could be the difference between an average Suns playoff team or dangerous team that no contender would want to see in any round of the playoffs.

Key Stat

35 Points

Last night, for the third time in 46 calendar days Goran Dragic has netted a new career-high in points scored in a single game. This season Dragic has taken his game to the next level as a scorer, leader, and overall offensive player and the Suns have benefited from his evolution. For most of his career Dragic has been a reserve or a role player. Even looking at his Per36 numbers in previous years they have always been in the neighborhood of 15-16 points and 5-7 assists per game on roughly 45% shooting. This year he is "the man" for lack of a better of term and playing like a Top 5 point guard in the entire NBA this year. The evolution will continue as Dragic has always been a better second half player in games and in seasons. Buckle up.

Quote of the Week

"We thought that if we played hard, you never know how you are going to get a team, they have been on the road for a long time, they were probably itching to get back home and they had an off night and we had a decent night. We will take it." - Coach Jeff Hornacek after defeating the Spurs

2014 NBA Draft Update

Surrogate Watch continues and the Suns have three first round picks with the current projections, none of which are in the lottery. A slight change of pace from pre-season projections. Here is the update on how the three picks look right now:

Minnesota Timberwolves (27-29) -- No. 13 Overall (Pick stays in Minnesota based on Protections) Wayne Selden, Freshman Guard, Kansas

Washington Wizards (28-28) -- No. 18 Overall (Pick goes to Phoenix based on Protections) Chris Walker, Freshman Forward, Florida -- While he has not played a lot this season, Walker is an ideal NBA forward with his athleticism, length, and versatility on both ends of the court. He might come back for a second year to boost his stock, but either way Walker is a special talent.

Phoenix Suns (33-22) -- No. 22 Overall (Pick stays in Phoenix based on Protections) Mario Hezonja, Guard Croatia -- Going International for a "draft-and-stash" makes sense here with the Suns roster full of young, developing talent already. Hezonja might need a year for strength and conditioning for the NBA, but again he is the type of athlete and shooter McDonough appreciates.

Indiana Pacers (42-13) -- No. 30 Overall (Pick goes to Phoenix based on Protections) Clint Capela, Forward Switzerland -- One of the best athletes and frames not playing in college right now comes from the France Pro A League and is rising fast up draft boards. He might not be on the board this late come draft night. This is another "draft-and-stash" potential athlete.

Keep following along here to get updates and information on the 2014 NBA Draft Class and more.

News & Notes

  • There were no trades made by the Phoenix Suns at the Trade Deadline
  • Conversations around Evan Turner happened per Paul Coro, but the players on the Suns roster were not as available as the media made them out to be
  • Eric Bledsoe is believed to be 1-2 weeks out from making his return

Previewing the Week Ahead:

Tuesday, February 25th vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (27-29)

Wednesday, February 26th @ Utah Jazz (19-36)

Friday, February 28th vs. New Orleans Pelicans (23-32)

Sunday, March 2nd vs. Atlanta Hawks (26-29)

What an opportunity this week. Last week the Suns took advantage of two lottery dwelling teams while splitting with two legitimate contenders. This week they face four teams that are a combined 31 games under .500 and for the most part are all struggling at this point in the season.

The T-Wolves have actually won three out of their last four after dropping six of seven before that. They have turned the corner behind Kevin Love's strong play, but even Love was not enough as the Suns topped them in Minnesota in early January this year. In that game Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee frustrated Love into a 4-20 shooting night which was the worst of his career.

So far the Suns are 4-1 against the Pelicans and Jazz combined this year and have not faced the Hawks who have been struggling since Al Horford went down.

The three teams are 8-22 combined in their last 10 games each all moving in a downward spiral towards the lottery. Trey Burke and Ryan Anderson gave their teams hope when they came back from injury, but, for the Jazz, overall talent is lacking and the Pelicans cannot seem to defend with their best five players on the floor.

It may be a bit arrogant of me, but I am seeing W's this week and a 4-0 week with the toughest game coming at Utah on a back-to-back.

The Houston Rockets took advantage of the Phoenix Suns scheme by scoring 64 points in the paint and 28 more from the free throw line. But despite that, the Suns scheme is still a winning formula.

After last night's tough loss to the Houston Rockets, the Phoenix Suns have to assess whether their system and scheme is up to the task of a playoff run.

The Suns scheme is designed to force teams into contested shots in the paint to get their points. The Rockets did just that, scoring 64 points at the rim and another 28 points at the line on foul calls. The result: 115 points on nearly 53% shooting.

But before we go into any panic moves, rotation changes or questioning of a scheme that is allowing the entire roster (sans Leandro Barbosa) have career years, let's look closer at the season-long numbers.

Screen_shot_2014-02-24_at_6

*Data courtesy nba.com/stats and basketball-reference.com

Points in the paint

After a game in which the Rockets scored 20 points in the paint in the first quarter alone, and 64 for the game, you might think the Phoenix Suns are getting clobbered in that area all season.

The fact is that, yes, the Suns allow more attempts in the paint per game than most every NBA team. But a closer look at the numbers reveals three things:

  • the Suns defense is designed to prevent three-pointers (which, by definition, count for more points) by closing out hard on shooters and forcing them to drive to the paint
  • the Suns defend the paint respectably (middle of the pack) on those drives
  • the Suns get in the paint a lot themselves, and only lose 4.3 points per game down there.

Small consolation after seeing the Rockets dominate the paint last night, but it's worth noting the Suns know in advance games like this will happen.

The problem is the conversion rate the Rockets enjoyed. The Suns are okay at defending down there and are 11th overall FG% allowed to the other team (44.8% per game), their best rating in several years.

But last night, the Rockets used those attempts in the paint to finish by making nearly 53% of their shots overall.

"This is our house," a frustrated coach Hornacek said after a game in which the Suns lost an 11-point fourth quarter lead. "If you let them shoot 53%, you don't deserve to win."

Free throws

The Suns allow a lot of free throws. Probably more than anyone would like. But that's part of the defensive scheme. While the Suns of mid-2000s prided themselves on committing the fewest fouls, these Suns are nothing like that. These Suns are intentionally aggressive.

Hornacek on calling a timeout 24 seconds into the second half against Houston--

"We came in the half saying we need to get back on defense and the first play they run right down and get an easy layup. It's that same starting group that got us in a hole in the first place (20 paint points in the first quarter) so I just wanted to get on top of it right off the bat and try to not let that happen again, what happened in the first quarter."

Gone are the days of giving up the layup in order to get back on offense as quickly as possible. These Suns are in-our-face aggressive from the perimeter to the rim.

That scheme has been effective, with the Suns allowing the league's 11th-best shooting percentage to the opposition and the 14th best defense overall (points per possession).

The Suns make most of the free throw deficit (including a 29th ranked free throw defense) by getting to the line themselves. A jump shooting team by nature, the aggressive Suns are 10th in the league in free throw attempts and lose less than 2 points per game at the stripe.

The difference last night was that the Rockets got eight more points at the line than the Suns usually allow.

"They shoot a lot of free throws" Hornacek said after the game. "They're good at getting the ball inside they're good at driving the ball and kind of leaning in. They got them but they made them - they were 28-for-32 that probably won them the game."

The Suns got to the line as well, but missed more than usual. Ultimately, what is usually a 2-point deficit at the line turned into an 11-point deficit last night.

Three pointers

This is where the Suns win their games. As you can see in the chart above, the Suns outscore their opponents by 9.1 points per game behind the arc.

But that's not just by being the best three-points shooters in the league (9th overall %, on all three-point attempts) but also by defending the three-point line better than anyone else. The Suns have allowed the lowest opposing three-point % in the league, and allowed the 7th fewest total attempts.

For the Suns to win game with this scheme, they must continue to defend that line with as much success as they have all season.

Summary

No team is perfect. The Suns personnel is not the most talented in the NBA. We have discussed the genesis of this team many times: two starters who played 55 total minutes last year, two more starters who spent multiple seasons out of the league, and a fifth starter with only 1.2 years of prior starting experience.

There are no All-NBA defenders. Nor are there any three-point champs. Or devastating scorers.

What the Suns have is a collection of guys willing to do whatever they possibly can to win games. And they have a coaching staff who put together a scheme on offense and defense that actually works.

  • force the opposing team off the three-point line and into the teeth of the defense
  • contest everything
  • at worst, make them earn their two points at the free throw line rather than a layup or dunk
  • Shoot a bunch of threes
  • get to the line nearly as often as the other team
  • Win the game

To that last point, the Suns are 33-22 after 55 games, their best 55-game start since 2007-08.

No need to change any schemes or rotations. The Suns only need to play better. The Houston game was an anomaly. The Suns prior three opponents (Denver, Boston, San Antonio) didn't crack 40% shooting, while Houston shot 53%.

The Suns have 5 home games to only 1 road game in the next week and a half before a long stretch of travel to end the season, and need only to go 15-12 to finish with 48 wins and a near-certain playoff berth. With Eric Bledsoe returning in the next 1-2 weeks, the Suns are igniting the present while still planning for the future.

Welcome to the Madhouse! Bright Side of the Sun is an amazing and diverse community and it deserves a place where the tyranny of topicality does not rule. And that's what The Madhouse is. It's Bright Side of the Sun's place to talk about whatever you want, whenever you want: trade ideas, news from around the league or how the trade deadline sure was quiet. It's all fair game here. Get crazy, y'all.

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