Eric Bledsoe returns to the court tonight as the Suns take on the worst team in the NBA.
These two teams met up in the second game of the year. Both teams struggled offensively all game, and Goran Dragic kicked off his streak of leaving games early with injury. Utah's top three players, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, each finished with a double-double.
But it was Eric Bledsoe who turned out to be the star of the game. After having an awful first three quarters, Bledsoe exploded in the fourth after Dragic went down, scoring 17 of his team-high 18 points in the final period. In fact, Bledsoe scored the final 14 points for the Suns including the game-winning 3-pointer with less than a second left in the clock.
For the Suns, Eric Bledsoe has missed six straight games with a bruised shin that just won't heal. Paul Coro says it looks like Bledsoe will give it a go tonight, however.
Alex Len continues to be day-to-day with his sore ankles. Hopefully he can get over this and get back to full strength at some point in the not too distant future. Len has shown some flashes, but he can't get any better if he can't play.
For the Jazz, center Enes Kanter is a game-time decision with a sprained ankle. He missed Utah's last game against Chicago, but it sounds like he'll play tonight as well.
Goran Dragic is having a tremendous season for the Suns. As I wrote in my column earlier, Dragic is averaging 21 and nine assists in games he's both started and finished. Dragic has to be the guy to run the offense and get everyone else open looks. So much pressure is placed on Dragic every game, and for the most part he has handled that brilliantly.
As for the rest of the team, the Suns have four guys shooting 37 percent or better from the perimeter. Dragic is the first option on most plays, but if he can't get a shot off he's usually collapsing the defense and kicking out to a shooter. This season, those shooters are making teams pay.
The Morris Twins have both provided consistent production over the last few games. If they can continue to do so, the Suns can continue to win.
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The Jazz have been the worst team in the league, edging out the Milwaukee Bucks, and their tanking campaign appears to be going quite well.
Gordon Hayward has been struggling mightily with his shot as Utah's first option, but he's still doing a lot of good things for the Jazz and almost put up a triple-double the last time he played the Suns.
Derrick Favors is a double-double threat every night. and with Kanter back they have a very talented frontcourt.
One big difference from the first game is that rookie Trey Burke did not play in the first meeting. He's now healthy and has played in the least four. Burke has struggled mightily, but he was the Player of the Year in college basketball last season and can definitely burn the Suns if they let him.
Former Sun Diante Garrett has latched on with Utah, and has actually played fairly well for them. However, he was a DNP-CD in their last game against Chicago.
PG: Goran Dragic - Trey Burke
SG: Gerald Green - Gordon Hayward
SF: P.J. Tucker - Richard Jefferson
PF: Channing Frye - Marvin Williams*
C: Miles Plumlee - Derrick Favors*
*Bledsoe will come off the bench if he can play tonight, while Favors will likely start at center pushing Marvin Williams back to the bench.
Goran Dragic vs. Trey Burke: Burke is a rookie, he;s under six feet tall and he hasn't played well so far. Dragic needs to take advantage and dominate this match-up.
P.J. Tucker vs. Gordon Hayward: I certainly hope this is the match-up, as I feel much less confident in Green's ability to slow down Hayward. Like Dragic is for the Suns, Hayward is the guy who is going to do most of the creating for the Jazz. Make things tough on him and the whole Utah offense will struggle.
Suns bigs vs Derrick Favors: Miles Plumlee, Channing Frye and Markieff Morris will all probably get their shot against Favors. They need to make him take tough shots in the post and keep him off the offensive glass.
Join me in giving thanks for this great game and the team that brings us together.
With refrigerators everywhere full of leftover turkey, I thought it was a good time to stop, reflect and give thanks for the greatest game in the world: basketball.
I truly am thankful for this game, and the NBA is the highest level of basketball there is. The NBA has given me and many others countless hours of entertainment and enjoyment. Some of my fondest memories have come in an NBA arena or in front of my television.
We've already had some amazing moments early on in the season. The best players in the game have put up some huge performances already.
LeBron James, as if he wasn't already good enough, is putting up 26-7-6 on 60 percent shooting. That is insane. James is doing it better than anyone else in the game. We should all be grateful for having the opportunity to watch an all-time great in his prime.
Kevin Durant isn't far behind James. With the handles and shooting of a guard and the length of a 7-footer, Durant is unguardable and as entertaining a player as there is in the league.
There are plenty of others playing at a high level as well. Stephen Curry, Kevin love, Andre Iguodala and Kyle Korver (#KyleStreak) are just a few of my favorites. I'm sure all of you have favorite players across the league as well. Regardless of who it is, take some time to give thanks for getting to see these guys do their thing.
The East may be a mess right now, but at least two teams in the Pacers and Heat are playing at a high level. The West is competitive from top to (almost) bottom (not you, Utah), and it should remain that way throughout the season. There are going to be some fierce battles as the season goes on, and that is something else to be thankful for.
There is plenty to be thankful for with our team as well. Coming off one of the worst seasons in franchise history, the Suns have pulled almost a 1-80. I'm most thankful for the architects of that turnaround: Ryan McDonough and Jeff Hornacek. McDonough is a wizard on the trade market, turning almost every veteran on the team into a valuable asset and yet still improving the team. Hornacek has his team playing like, you know, a team. The defense is much more cohesive and effective and several players are having career years. Even P.J. Tucker has become a legitimate 3-point shooting threat.
I'm thankful for Eric Bledsoe, who is averaging 20, 7 and 5 in his first nine games as a starter. He has surpassed almost every expectation so far. Now he just needs to get healthy.
I'm thankful for the return of Channing Frye. After an entire year out of the game, it is incredible to see him back out there and playing as well as he ever has.
I'm thankful that Miles Plumlee has emerged as a legitimate rotation player.
But most of all on this roster, I'm thankful for Goran Dragic. Dragic's NBA career has had many ups and downs, from the ugly start to the 23 point quarter against San Antonio to being traded to Houston and now to being the Suns' best player. I the eight games that he has both started and finished (i.e. excluding the ones he left early with injuries) Dragic has averaged 21 points, nine assists and almost four rebounds per game. He's been terrific, especially considering for much of the season he's been the only legitimate threat to create offense on the team with Bledsoe's shin injury. Dragic continues to put up big numbers and is one of the biggest reasons the Suns are over .500 on the season.
Finally, I'm thankful for this blog. I owe so much to Bright Side of the Sun, and to all of you. When I found this blog in the summer of 2010, I was a high school kid who loved sports but had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. It wasn't until discovering this blog and the FanPost section that I realized I wanted to write about sports, and the reaction I got from those early posts gave me confidence that I could do it and encouraged me to go for it. Now, three-and-a-half years late, I'm a staff writer, a journalism major and am about to take over as the sports editor for the school paper. I've learned so much about the game of basketball from this site and have become a much better writer because of it. I've spent so many hours on this blog discussing the Phoenix Suns with all of you, and have enjoyed every minute of it.
So to you, Bright Siders, I just want to say thank you.
A year after being one of the league's worst offenses, the Phoenix Suns are forging a way into the league's upper echelon of offense by taking the right shots at the right times.
League averages in the 2013-14 season:
Today, I will delve more in depth on the Suns' shot distribution this season compared to prior years to illustrate the shift to more three-point shooting and away from long two-point shots. Pretty pictures are included, for those still tripping on tryptophan.
The shot with the lowest value per attempt is anything outside paint but inside the three-point line. Of course, teams need to be able to shoot from all over, and the better shooters you have the more games you will win.
But if you're starting with a team who can't shoot from anywhere at a high clip (last year's Suns), you might as well at least have them take higher-value shots than not.
Interim head coach Lindsey Hunter famously said last spring, when asked about Michael Beasley and the Morrii's propensity to settle for long two-pointers, "I don't care where the shot comes from." He followed that up with, "I don't care if they miss as long as they are aggressive."
Let's compare the Suns' 2012-13 shot distribution to this season:
As you can see, last year the Suns shot fewer three-pointers (league-average 1.05 points per attempt) than long two-pointers (league average 0.7 points per attempt). Not coincidentally, the Suns had the 29th-ranked offense out of 30 teams in the entire league.
Conversely, this season you can see a mighty shift. This season, the Suns are shooting more than twice as many high-value three-pointers as long two-pointers. As a result, with many of the same shooters as last season (the Morrii, Dragic and Tucker anyway), the Suns are now 10th in offensive efficiency after 15 games.
In fact, the Suns fact have made such a dramatic shift in their offensive shot distribution that they are second only to Houston in rate of three-point attempts per possession. No one else takes as many three-pointers as a percentage of their offense than the Suns and Rockets.
Houston is an anomaly in this league. Check out this shot distribution for the Houston Rockets:
A full 35% of their shot attempts are three-pointers and - in eye-dropping fashion - just 14% of their shots are anywhere at all between 5 and 20 feet from the basket. We already know that's the worst value on the floor. Go Houston.
Houston is definitely an anomaly though. Every other NBA team knows that three-pointers and shots in the paint are the highest value, so they gear their defense around stopping those shots and forcing the low-value ones. Most other teams are much more evenly distributed across the shot ranges.
The Suns defend the three-point line and rim at a high clip, resulting directly in their 10th overall defensive rating, even after playing offensive juggernauts Miami and Portland this week.
Let's look at some of the other top offenses' shot distribution this season:
They all favor the long ball over the mid range, though not to the extreme of Houston and not even the extreme of Phoenix.
It's interesting that the Clippers, with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan helping dub them "Lob City", only take 34% of their shots in the paint - much lower than the Rockets, Spurs, Heat and even the Suns.
It's kudos to the Suns' coaching staff that they have figured out ways to score more efficiently based on shot distribution without having the benefit of supremely talented offensive players like Chris Paul, James Harden or LeBron James.
Speaking of extremely gifted offensive players, I was curious how the Suns' shot distribution looked when they were the top offense in the league back in the mid-2000s.
Remember, 2004-05 was the breakout year, 2005-06 was the no-Amare small-ball year, 2006-07 was the "best chance at a ring" year and 2009-10 was the "last best chance". All were 54 to 62-win teams.
As you can see, the mid-range shot was a staple of the best Suns offenses of the last decade, with the maestro Steve Nash calling the shots. No problem there.
But when you've got an offensively-challenged team, as Jeff Hornacek does this season, it helps to at least take the best shots possible.
The Suns are taking 71% of their shots either at the rim or behind the three-point line, a higher rate than any of those prior teams. None of the others grouped more than 66% of their shots in those ranges.
And the current team is taking more threes per possession than any team in Suns recent history, as well. None of the others even reached the 30% mark from that range.