The Phoenix Suns put up the good fight like they have been able to do in the season's second half against playoff-quality teams, but this time they played a team (the Indiana Pacers) more than ready to fight back hard.
The Indiana Pacers are a tough team. They hit you, they poke at the ball with their long arms and they fight for position on each end of the floor. To top it off, they have excellent execution of their offense, which is heavily based on inside-out scoring. Their shots are high-percentage taken by confident shooters.
Yet the Suns, behind "Rocky" (Goran Dragic), kept fighting back. Dragic scored 9 big points in the middle of the fourth to pull the Suns to within 1 before the Pacers got lucky on a tough call for a foul on a George three-pointer.
George made all three, but then the Suns used some nifty passing to get an old-fashioned three-point play by O'Neal.
The Pacers kept getting offensive rebounds and drawing fouls though, which helped them keep their slim lead. The Pacers made 9 straight free throws without a field goal, while the Suns missed shots, and took a 6-point lead before West nailed the coffin with a jumper.
Goran Dragic had 21 points, 9 assists and 4 rebounds in his return to the lineup. And he could have had half a dozen more assists if the Pacers hadn't been so good at stripping the ball and blocking shots at the hoop.
In the first half, the Pacers used their quick length to outrebound (27-19 advantage at halftime) the smaller and/or slower-to-the-ball Suns. Hamed Haddadi and Jermaine O'Neal had the size but not the quickness, while Markieff Morris and Luis Scola just didn't have the size to out-jump the Pacers for contested rebounds.
The Suns stayed in the game by making jump shots to the tune of an unusual 48% at halftime, and by hustling in a way they seem to only reserve for playoff-level opponents lately. Head coach Lindsey Hunter has "no earthly idea" why the Suns can't play this hard against easier competition, but they don't. They seem determined to put out only the minimum effort they think they need, which is almost always not enough.
"I think a lot of times, they don't understand what maximum effort means," Hunter said before the game about the up and down effort the young guys have displayed. "We have to show them, teach them, about not giving up on a play. A lot of guys have never heard that before. Just because you hit a screen, that doesn't mean the play's over."
These young guys were the stars of their high school teams, their AAU teams, their college teams even. Now in the NBA, they are just... players. Not stars. And guys who are not stars need to exert more effort than those who are. And those who are stars are playing pretty darn hard every second too.
Goran Dragic knows this.
"He'll kill himself if you let him," Hunter said of Dragic. "He'll never say he's beat up. He'll just walk around looking real bad, but not talking about it."
The Suns started the second half on fire, but were held back by fouls after they'd pulled within 2. Dragic had his fourth foul within three minutes of the second half.
After the Suns pulled to within one, the Pacers went on a run while Dragic took a seat to nurse his four fouls. Kendall Marshall didn't do much better, getting his third foul by mid-quarter. George Hill was working these guys hard with contact.
The Pacers pulled away in the third and kept the lead between 5-10 points despite the Suns hustling as hard as they could really play.
The Pacers just do it better. The Pacers were highly engaged too, as a matter of fact. They played chippy. And they used their long arms to contest every dribble, every pass and every shot.
At the end of three, it was 86-76 Pacers with 40 of their points in the paint.
Since losing starting C Marcin Gortat to a foot injury, the Phoenix Suns are 2-10 and looking worse by the day. The Indiana Pacers, on the other hand, have been missing their best scorer, Danny Granger, almost the entire season and have thrived.
The difference? Better collective talent, and an excellent, defense-based gameplan.
If you are looking for a model the Suns might want to emulate, you might want to look at the Indiana Pacers for inspiration. After making it to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2004, the Pacers declined slowly. Eventually, they missed the playoffs for 4 straight seasons from 2006-2010 under a coach (Jim O'Brien) that had them (failing to regularly) score from the perimeter while playing middling defense.
When the team stopped progressing, they handed the reins to untested Frank Vogel, who had never been a head coach before (though he had spent 10 years as an NBA assistant). Vogel instituted a defense-first mentality that used an efficient inside-out offensive scheme (offensive rating jumped from 26th to 7th), took the Pacers to the playoffs and now has them seeded third in the East with an even more focused defense sans Danny Granger's offense.
Their best draft moves were getting lucky with Danny Granger (17th overall in 2005) and then Paul George and Lance Stephenson (10th and 40th in 2010). But that's the highlight of their draft prowess using their own picks during that timeframe.
They traded erstwhile All-Star Jermaine O'Neal to Toronto for the rights to rookie C Roy Hibbert (17th in 2008), who went on to exceed expectations along with Danny Granger.
Hibbert and Granger developed with a ragtag group of middling players who wouldn't be starting for any playoff team, and certainly didn't in Indiana.
Then the 2010 draft came along (George) and they fully revitalized their team in 2011. The Pacers bookended the 2011 lockout by trading the 15th overall pick (Kawhi Leonard) to San Antonio for George Hill, and later signing free agent David West before the 2011-12 season finally started.
Since then, the Pacers have been on the rise in the East without boasting a top-10 player in the NBA. They are doing it with defense - ranked #1 overall this season by a wide margin.
The Phoenix Suns could do well to emulate this pattern. They already have the several-seasons-outside-the-playoffs thing going, and won't pick up a franchise-changer in the upcoming draft. But that's where the similarities end.
At some point, the Suns have to start trending back up. It won't happen in these next 9 games, but this summer is crucial to start turning the tide in the right direction.
The Suns reportedly want to win with defense going forward, and getting the right coach into position to do so (like the Pacers did with Vogel) is vital. Is Lindsey Hunter that coach? Maybe. Maybe not. The Suns have to put Hunter against a number of other candidates this spring to find out.
Vogel was in a different position than Hunter is in right now. In fact, Hunter's position more closely resembles Jim O'Brien's in Indiana - the guy who presided over the team while they got younger, after the playoffs slipped away.
Vogel took over a team that was already young and ready to implement his teachings, while Hunter is still going through the roster transition. Will next year be different? Who knows, at this point. Depends on how the summer goes.
Goran Dragic missed the first game of the season series, where the Suns lost in Indiana 97-91. The Suns played a tough game but came up short at the end. Telfair put up 19 and 6 in Dragic's absence, while Marcin Gortat had 15 and 10 against Roy Hibbert. The Suns don't have either of those players tonight.
This is Indiana's only trip to Phoenix this season.
The Pacers' #1 defense in the NBA face the NBA's worst overall offense since Hunter took over. Expect starting point guard Goran Dragic back in the lineup tonight, along with Jermaine O'Neal.
The Suns like to "get up" for playoff teams, so maybe tonight will be a revelation of effort and execution like we saw against Houston, the Lakers and New Jersey. But don't count on it.
The Pacers are on a roll while the Suns are getting rolled. Expect more of the same, no matter who starts for the Suns tonight.
Tonight's game against Indiana will be the FIRST EVER NBA game to feature two pairs of brothers facing off against each other. Indiana boasts Tyler and Ben Hansbrough, while the Suns boast Marcus and Markieff Morris.
Let's get ready to rumble!
At some point in the second or fourth quarter, all four brothers will be on the court.
One of the four (either Markieff or Tyler) will have a significant game, while the other three lay an egg.