Steve Nash celebrated his 38th birthday by continuing his outstanding recent play, leading the Suns to a successful 3-1 week and being named to the All-Star team along the way. The Suns won three road games and hung tough with a Rockets team that had blown them out the previous week. In fact, the two losses to the Rockets are the Suns only losses so far this month, after they finished January with a thud. Things are looking up!
Record for the week (February 5-11): 3-1
Average Score: Suns 98.3, Opponents: 93.8
Beating the Bucks and Kings is nothing to uncork champagne over, but the Hawks are an upper-echelon playoff seed in the East and the Suns handled them with ease in Atlanta. This might have been the best stretch of Suns ball we've seen this year. Channing Frye came to life, Michael Redd provided some needed scoring off the bench, Grant Hill looks healthy and Steve Nash is, incredibly, playing as well as ever. The ceiling on this Suns team is low, but it's encouraging to at least see them not underachieving as they were early in the season.
Western Conference Position: 12th
The Suns have been hanging out in this area of the conference standings for most of the season and the longer it goes on, the more it looks like they're stuck here. However, it wouldn't take too much of a hot streak to make up ground. They're only 2 1/2 games back from the #8 seed, and the Nuggets, Blazers and Jazz are sliding a bit. It will probably take 35 or 36 wins out of 66 games to make the playoffs, meaning the Suns need to go at least 23-16 the rest of the way to have a shot.
Offensive Rating: 102.3 (19th out of 30), PPG: 93.4 (19th out of 30)
It's so simple, isn't it? Put the ball in the basket. The open shots the Suns were missing early in the season are now starting to fall, and the Suns made 37% of their 3s and 49% of their total FGs this week, both above their season averages. Channing Frye, Jared Dudley and Michael Redd are hitting 3s at a fairly consistent rate and the 3-point shot is key to the Suns offensive success.
The bench continues to struggle to score and the Suns are still prone to occasional long cold spells, both in evidence against Houston. But the core of the Suns offense, Nash/Gortat pick and roll, and 3-point shooters knocking them down from the wings and corners, is starting to round into form. We can hope that Shannon Brown will not be the team's 4th leading scorer in PPG before long. It's disturbing.
Defensive Rating: 105.2 (22rd out of 30), PPG Allowed: 96.1 (20th out of 30)
The lower third of the league in defense is nothing to be proud of, but it's an improvement from last season, when the Suns were dwelling in the league cellar defensively. So, there's that. And they've only given up 100 or more twice in 7 games this month, both times in wins. The Suns are never going to be the Bad Boy Pistons on defense, but defense isn't a glaring weakness with this team, and they've looked above average on occasion. Slow, measured progress with a long way to go, but progress nonetheless.
Pace: 91.3 (18th out of 30)
Run and gun was fun, wasn't it? Ah, those were the days. These Suns don't have the athletes to push it up and down the floor, and middle of the pack is what we can expect.
Game of the Week: Suns 99, Hawks 90
The Suns first win of the week was also their most impressive, as they went on the road to face a tough Atlanta team and led throughout, dominating long stretches of the game before a bit of a 4th quarter run by the Hawks made the game appear closer than it was. The Suns made 11 3-pointers, the bench produced well, and Nash scored 24 to go with 11 assists as the Suns got the rare blowout on the road against a playoff team.
Stud of the Week: Steve Nash
Who else? The Suns lone All-Star selection is shooting as accurately as he ever has in his brilliant career, and leads the league in assists. This past week, he averaged 15.0 points and 12.5 assists, shooting a gaudy 63.6% from 3 and 63.8% from the field overall. Seth, Wil, PHXgp and I all think he's a righteous dude. And, of course, he hit the game-winner on his birthday.
Dud of the Week: Entire Suns Bench
The only truly poor stretch of basketball the Suns played this past week was the second unit in the second quarter against the Rockets, and it was catastrophically poor. Yes, the Rockets bench is top-notch, but it was embarrassing the way they pillaged and plundered the Suns bench on Thursday night. A great performance from the starters, including a double-double from Frye and a perfect 7-7 shooting night from Nash, was wasted.
Can this team win 23 of its last 39 games and make the playoffs? Never say never, but it's unlikely. At least they're starting to work their rotation out and Frye's slump is temporarily over. They're competing and winning, amidst all the chatter about tanking and potential Nash trades and "is Gentry's job safe?" They continue to compete and play hard, which gives them a chance, and gives us fans a reason to watch.That resolve will be tested this week as they play a back to back to back starting Monday night in Oakland against the Warriors.
While the talent on the whole Phoenix Suns roster is marginal, it is the second unit of the Suns that falls completely flat compared to the rest of the NBA.
You would think that a roster built 13-deep in rotation-quality players - that is, players who played regularly in the rotations of winning teams in prior years - would perform well when the other team's starters were resting. And that the top-end talent of the Suns would be the unit suffering against the top-end talent of other teams.
By that reasoning, and considering the normal playing time of each team's first and second units, you would think the Suns would suffer by comparison in the first, third and fourth quarters. And that the Suns' best quarter, by scoring margin, would be the second quarter, when every team's backup players get their most run.
Well, that is not the case for the Suns. Not by a long shot. And it never has been.
In fact, the second quarter is the BEST predictor of the Suns' success as a team. Win the second, win the game. Lose the second, lose the game. This has been true in every season since 2003-04.
Don't believe me? I'll show you a pretty chart to prove it.
The chart below shows the unnerving correlation between the scoring margin of the second quarter vs. the scoring margin of the entire game, for every season back to the 2003-04 season.
As you can see, the Suns' ability to win the second quarter is highly indicative of their ability to win the entire game.
Of course, we all know this logically. But don't tell me you knew the correlation was THIS high all the way back through the glory days. Remember those few minutes at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters when even the national announcers would count the minutes until Nash re-entered at the 8-9-minute mark? We all knew the second unit couldn't hold or build a lead consistently. All we needed were the starters to right the ship again. Yet, the second quarter was still the most predictive of success for the Suns, even then.
How have the Suns done, game by game this season?
When the Suns win the second quarter this season, they are a whopping 10-2.
When the Suns lose the second quarter this season, they are a dismal 2-13.
So...yeahhhh...it's indicative of team success.
This is why Michael Redd has supplanted Shannon Brown on the second unit, and why - for the most part - Sebastian Telfair has supplanted Ronnie Price. With those players better on offense than defense, you can guess why Josh Childress has suddenly popped back into the rotation in place of offense-only Hakim Warrick.
Head coach Alvin Gentry is just trying to find a successful combination of players for that second quarter while the starters on both teams are resting. If this new unit starts falling off the cliff, we'll see the old guys right back in there. Mixing and matching. When it works, Alvin is doing a good job. When it fails, Alvin is failing. Don't forget it's the players who have to perform.
"It's frustrating and it's embarrassing," Suns reserve small forward Josh Childress said, in an article on azcentral.com by beat writer Paul Coro. "We have to be better than that. Coach (Alvin Gentry) has given us a lot of trust. We have to find ways to help the team. Every single one of us wants to do the right thing but we have to make that translate into results."
You may have also noticed lately that Marcin Gortat often stays in the game for the beginning of the second quarter. Or that Dudley or Frye show up more often, if Gortat is resting.
Gentry is trying to pull this team together with paper clips, rubber bands and bubble gum. He's got a hodge-podge of player with their own skills but no one player with great skills. There's no "sixth man of the year" candidate on this roster.
So, watch the second quarter closely from now on. By halftime, you'll have a 90% chance of guessing the winning team correctly.
The Suns put in an excellent defensive effort, limiting the Kings to 35% shooting on their home court. The defensive charge was led by Grant Hill, who made Tyreke Evans a non-factor, holding the 6-6 point guard to 4 points on 1-9 shooting.
Down in the trenches, Phoenix narrowly lost the overall rebounding battle 42-38, but 50% shooting and an excellent bench effort more than made up for it.
This is about as good as the Phoenix Suns can play in the year 2012. The Kings record isn't very good, but they have put together quality efforts against the WC elite winning against the likes of the Lakers, Thunder, Spurs, and Trailblazers. What is also impressive about this victory is the Suns began to pull away from the Kings early, opening up an 11 point 1st quarter lead, and held the lead without Steve Nash in the lineup for the second quarter. Ronnie Price and Sebastian Telfair put in quality appearances, with Price adding 6 points on 3-3 shooting while Telfair handed out 4 assists. Neither player turned the ball over. This was just one of the things that...WENT RIGHT!
And there were more:
Next up, the Warriors, on Monday in NorCal.