Take a look at my experience in New Orleans for All Star Weekend.

Bright Side of the Sun wants to thank the team at Crown Royal for a magnificent weekend in New Orleans for the 2014 All-Star Game. What a treat to be whiskeyed (we drank responsibly!) and dined like a VIP for the entire weekend.

Along the way, I met some great bloggers from around the country and even got a chance to meet a living legend: Dr. J himself, Mr. Julius Erving.

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They put the tall people in the back (cover photo), so all you can see of me is my head above Dr. J's. But I didn't need to insist on a closer picture in the crowd since I got a selfie with the Dr. anyway.

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Not as crystal clear as the the group photo, but proof enough for me!

Erving was a great host who shared some thoughts about today's NBA, how he got his nickname and what he thinks of advanced stats.

Erving also helped us learn something about whiskey, but I have to admit after a few glasses I didn't remember (and couldn't tell) the difference between one and another (though I think I'm partial to the XO).

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To show what a good sport Dr. J is, take a look at this 2012 clip of him taking 'Three Ridiculous Questions' from Jimmy Kimmel.

Friday Night

On Friday, we were invited as VIP guests to Kenny Smith's TNT All-Star party. I saw several retired ball players there, including the ever-dapper Grant Hill. The party was being held at the Metropolitan, a trendy bar in NOLA.

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As the old guy in the group, I didn't make it as late as most did. This place was hopping!

Saturday Night

As great as Friday was, Saturday was even better. I'll cover basketball later in this post, but for now let's stick with the party theme. Saturday was the early Dr. J. meeting, then a multi-course dinner with various Crown Royal cocktails, then back to the Metropolitan for comedian Kevin Hart's All-Star party. This time, I stayed out with everyone till nearly 4am (and paid for it on Sunday).

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That's me on the right, along with three other SB Nation bloggers: Nate Timmons, Denver Stiffs; Tom Lorenzo, Nets Daily, and Rebecca Larson, Mavs Money Ball. Another SB Nation blogger who joined us but is not shown here is Jason Walker, PeachTree Hoops. (Jason is in the sport jacket and red shirt in the first Dr. J group photo above).

I had a great time with these fine folks drinking cocktails on the house all weekend. As you can tell, we were the envy of the whole bar.

Here's everyone at the bar mobbing Kevin Hart as he came in. Needless to say, we didn't get any close-ups with Kevin. Img_0847_medium
Sorry. That's the best I could do, folks. I believe that's him with his back to the camera against the far wall. LOL. It was a crush of humanity and too much tight leopard-skin for my taste. I realized at this point (well, much earlier I guess) I might not be Kevin Hart's target audience, at least at All-Star parties.

NBA Jam Session

Now let's get back to basketball.

Between all the parties, I was able to partake a bit in the basketball side of All-Star weekend with a media pass to the NBA Jam Fest, which lots of games and interactive activities for kids (and kids at heart) but also included the D-League skills competitions and All-Star game.

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We got to see some of the best D-League players doing All-Star things:

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Was good to see a couple of guys who tried out for the Suns in recent seasons - hope they get their shot soon enough. Onuaku just signed a 10-day deal with Cleveland this week. Supposedly, the Knicks are looking at signing Diogu this week as well.

Pierre Jackson was the marquee player at the event, scoring 33 points along with 10 assists, but has not gotten a call-up to the NBA and recently signed a deal overseas.

Sunday's All-Star Game

The basketball highlight of the weekend, besides meeting Dr. J., was the All-Star game.

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The pregame show, with Farrell and his all-star band of 40 year old rappers, was a rocking experience. Seemed like it was a concert where a basketball game broke out during intermissions.

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Sure, it's a total showcase where no one plays team ball and it's all about the biggest star-power plays, but I have to say the ASG was fun to see live - especially with the great NBA bloggers around me to enjoy it with.

I won't soon forget Jason Walker (Hawks blog, Peachtree Hoops) bringing up every possible connection to "The ATL" during the game, and throughout the weekend for that matter. He reminded Dr. J. on Saturday about the Doctor's short experience with the Atlanta Hawks. Erving laughed and said they should catch up sometime later to discuss in detail. I had no idea what Jason was talking about, so googled this. LOL. Dr. J. and Zelmo Beatty had a lot more in common than I ever guessed.

Suns connection

Anyway, it was a fun time despite not being able to see the Suns' very own Goran Dragic at all over the weekend. Being out with Crown Royal, we didn't get to attend the Skills Challenge, but I didn't end up missing much anyway.

"I didn't like [the format]," Dragic said afterward, with a laugh. "If you're doing well but somebody else is not doing well you're kind of screwed."

He wouldn't name who was not doing well, but didn't ascribe to the notion floated on twitter that his partner Jackson didn't even realize is was a team event. He said they talked beforehand about it.

The big thing was that, like me, Dragic spent a great deal of his weekend time away from the basketball court. Miles Plumlee had a similar experience to Goran in that his basketball portion was very brief while the media and community service schedule was heavy.

"In the off days, it was a lot of work," Dragic said afterward of his experience in town for the Skills Challenge. "Media, meeting new people, building benches for NBA Cares. It was fun, but I didn't have that much of a break."

Goran had planned to bring Maya and Mateo, but once Maya saw the schedule she said no way.

Wrap up

I am really grateful to the Crown Royal team for hosting me and the other bloggers this weekend the first ever Crown’s Center Court influencer program comprised of NBA specific team writers from across the nation.

The Crown team isn't done yet!

Coming soon are giveaways to you guys, including NBA.com gift cards and other quality prizes. Stay tuned for those giveaways in March and April.

For Crown Royal, to Reign On is to win, and we want you to Reign On responsibly this NBA season.

Cheers!

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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.

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*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.

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