At this late point in the season, good hard practices are few and far between. Getting needed rest to be fresh for games becomes paramount to drilling the schemes into the players between games with hard practices.
For the first time this season, the Phoenix Suns coaching staff posted the playoff standings in the locker room, showing the team that they are within 1.5 games of a playoff spot this morning.
Those standings are right next to Goran Dragic's locker. But he doesn't need the reminder.
"For me, personally, after every game we win or lose I always check the standings so I already knew how the standings are."
They all know that they've dropped out of the playoff situation in recent weeks.
"I think everybody checks that," Dragic said. "Even last game, we lost against Brooklyn Nets we checked the scores, especially Dallas and Memphis.
"We know Dallas lost tonight (Wednesday)."
The Dallas Mavericks lost to Minnesota on Wednesday night in overtime, pulling the Suns to within 1.5 games of both Memphis and Dallas after the Suns beat Orlando. The Mavs/Wolves game ended at halftime of the Suns game - a game in which the playoff-hopeful Suns were tied with the second-worst team in the East off a lackluster first half.
"At halftime, I said hey," Hornacek recounted. "If you think you guys are a playoff team, this is the time to come out at third quarters and you get after it and try to really take the game away. I think we were just playing the game for a half."
Dragic said they were told at halftime that Dallas had lost, a little boon to the team's spirits knowing they had a good chance to pull closer to the playoffs with a good second half.
"It was after our huddle," Dragic said. "Robert [Sarver] came in [to the locker room] and yelled 'Dallas lost, Dallas lost'!"
The Suns came out with a 7-0 start to the third quarter to create some separation, and then went began a 27-5 run with two three pointers at the end of the third before pouring it on in the fourth.
"We needed this win," Dragic said afterward.
Much has been made of the Suns' defensive lapses since the All-Star break. Before Wednesday's game, the Suns were giving up 107 points per 100 possessions since the break and were a bottom-five defense in field goal percentage allowed and points in the paint allowed.
Some of the regression can be blamed on the interior defense, never a strength of this team. But they have been a bottom-five team in points allowed in the paint all season with good results (39-29 record to this point), so that hasn't been the killer.
It's been slow rotations and missed assignments, leading to wide open jumpers and cuts to the basket. A growing problem can be the lack of practice time, which has to be much-needed for the league's least-experienced playoff contender.
"We haven’t really had a lot of practices, guys have been banged up," Gerald Green, one of the four veterans on the roster, said. "We’ve been on the road and it’s been kind of tough. At this point in the season, towards the end, it’s a lot tougher to get practice time."
Coach Hornacek agrees, but says he needs to balance rest with practice time.
"Yeah, this stretch here we only have two times in the last month and a half where we have two days off in a row," Hornacek said, "and both of them are off back-to-back games. So you give them the day off, and you can't really kill them [the next day] with a hard practice the day before another game. The schedule for us is tough right now. It's tough to have those practices where you're able to get the guys right."
"Do you want to practice something and be too tired to play?" he asked in response. "Or do you want to trust in the players that we're going to be able to be rested. If you want to practice, we don't know how to 'practice light'. There's no light practice, we only have one speed.
"So, do you want to win the game or do you want to practice?"
For Frye, practice isn't the answer at this point in the season. Yet, the slippage on rotations is there and young guys need the reminders.
The Suns entered the season with, collectively, the second-least NBA experience in the league. During the season, they added veterans Leandro Barbosa and Shavlik Randolph but have since turned back to the young guys to finish out the year. Alex Len played ahead Randolph in the last few games, putting up 9 points and 5 rebounds in only 11 minutes agains Vucevic-less Orlando. Barbosa injured a shoulder, toe and wrist in his first two months as a Sun, and is now out for the rest of the regular season.
Inexperience needs good habits drilled in, and the Suns just don't have time for it anymore.
"Tomorrow, I think guys are looking forward to [a hard practice] a little bit," Green said of today's non-game day. "It’s going to be tough but at the same time I know it’s going to help us and get us better and we’ll be ready for next game."
Despite being 25 years old, young center Miles Plumlee is only in his second year in the league, his first as a big-minutes player.
"I think that plays a factor," Plumlee said of lack of practice time. "We're not the most experienced team. I don't think our habits are ingrained to the level that other teams are. And so, if we aren't working on it consistently those things can slip."
As for Miles, he says he's past his down period where he lost energy.
"I feel as good or better than I have for a lot of the season," he said, after putting up 10 points and 9 rebounds in just 20 minutes against Orlando. Plumlee has come up one rebound or point shy of a DOUBLE double three times in the last six games, despite not exceeding 26 ,MINUTES in any of them.
Plumlee and Frye both commented that the coach has done a good job of managing minutes and getting guys the rest they need.
But it all comes back to what Channing Frye said is the key to success for this young team.
"You can't be all stressed out," he said. "That's not how we play. We've been one of those teams that's just been reckless, out there just to make havoc of everything and not play tight. We just need to go out there and win."