Goran Dragi? comes through in his first game back since April 14th. With 18 points and 8 assists he led Slovenia to victory.

Finally, after 4 long months, Goran Dragic played a game. For reasons I can't quite get behind he was not a starter, instead coming off the bench with 2 minutes left in the 1st.

You could see the intensity and tempo pick up the second the Dragi? brothers stepped on the floor. Although Goran started playing confidently enough, he ended up missing his first step back jumper completely. Made up for it with a typical Dragon drive to the basket on the next and final possession of the first quarter. He went on to miss about 3 or 4 more shots, including an open 3. I think he realized he was forcing it too much and started handing out assists instead. Could have had more than 8; a few led to free throws for teammates and some were just badly handled by teammates. Either way you could see he was getting more comfortable. He really came back breathing fire in the 4th, scoring 14 points in his last 8 minutes and bringing back that feeling of "there's no way Goran Dragi? is letting us lose".

He finished with 18pt (7/16), 8as, 3re, 1st, 2/2 ft (14 pt in the 4th) in roughly 25 minutes of playing time.

Brother Zoran Dragic was very active too, throwing himself all over the floor while going after the ball. He finished with 13 points and 4 steals. He could have had 15, had he not missed that last layup so badly, even Goran was in disbelief. His response in the form of raising his hands in a gesture clearly saying "How did you manage to miss that?" to his brother made me laugh so hard I got over the miss quickly.

In case you missed it Jogi wrote a great recap of the game and you can find the full Slovenia vs. New Zealand statistics here.

Statements after the game:

Goran Dragi?: "New Zealand is aways an unfavourable opponent. As history shows - all our matches have been very close. We started badly, in a cramp, nevertheless in the end we focused and with good defense got the win. For me it was the first game since April 14th. Have to admit, I was kind of nervous. I told my brother Zoran I'm feeling "butterflies" in my stomach. But the main thing is we won. Surely we can play much better, in the upcoming games I will be getting in better form, so I can't wait for the new challenges. Sunday's game against Greece will definitely be a real test. Greeks are a strong team, that will want to pay us back for that last big loss in Stožice (Ljubljana)."

Coach Zdovc: "The team was tired, since we had an intense practice yesterday and at the same time the opponent was unfavourable. They have good shooters in all positions, which we could see particularly in the first half. For this part of the preparation period this was the type of game we needed. It will be like this at the World Cup: competition you have to overcome and not underestimate. In the first half we were too anaemic. There was no real communication between players, no firmness on defense and our offense was in a cramp. In the second half, we partially fixed these things, but I still can't be happy with the whole picture, since some player weren't playing at their levels. Goran Dragi?, who was playing his first game in a long time, was great. I wasn't expecting him to play as he did. In key moments he took it upon himself and decided the game. However he will not be able to beat all the opponents alone. He needs his teammates, today sadly he did not have enough of them."

BONUS INFO: In case anyone is interested in how coach Zdovc feels about the Suns limitations, here's a translated quote from delo.si: "I'm bothered by the Americans demands, they undermine the authority of the coach, which to me is unacceptable. But slowly we got to our original proposal of Goran playing more games with less minutes (per game). At first Phoenix insisted he play in only three. After Goran called them, they agreed to 5, if he plays a little less minutes. Looks like they had to have the last word" - apparently smiling while explaining.

Goran Dragi?'s first appearance in international games this summer gives Slovenia the edge over the resilient New Zealand in a friendly game in Kaunas (Lithuania).

Not surprisingly, Gogi did not start the game. The reason being two-fold: he's limited to 25 minutes per game for the friendlies and the starting five is sort of used to each other. Still, we're all looking forward to some Dragon magic.

Box Score

Sovenia - New Zealand
80:74 (14:13, 13:24, 23:9, 30:28)

G. Dragi? 16, Z. Dragi? 13, D. Lorbek 12, Muri? 11; Webster 23.

First period

Starting he game, nothing really pretty, a few made shots on both sides, quite a few unforced errors, not a lot of team-play. Basically, the ball is bouncing around like a hot potato. Slovenians are relying mostly on the 3-point shot and half-court offense, not their best point, as they are best in transition and playing fast. So far, the speed leaves a lot to be desired. Although Domen Lorbek did just use the best Dragonshake I ever saw him do, but the defense is still way too slow.

Here's hoping Gogi can make a difference, he just entered with his bro, 2 minutes to go in the first period. And immediately the defense picks up, forces a bad shot and a good assist in transition. It's a different team with the Dragi? brothers playing, 1 minute to go Slovenia is down by one. Goran's first step-back went wide but the last attack was classic Gogi- PnR on the 3-point line and Goran attacking the help with a strong move, pushing the defending center off in mid-air and finishing with a lay-up. After first, SLO:NZ 14:13 (don't laugh, it's normal(ish) for an international friendly).

Second period

Defense is still the better part of Slovenia's game, while offensively they keep relying on half-court sets and forced shots while giving the ball away. A big problem is also the physicality and height of the NZ's players, as SLO doesn't really have a strong paint presence. Goran is being hounded by the opposing players and as a result he missed his patented step-back, again. Plus, everything else Slovenians are doing is basically a 3-point shot, which is not falling. Maybe a time-out for the Slovenians will help.

5-minutes int the second period, not much to like on the SLO side, except for some good transition defense, but we are being man-handled everywhere else. And Goran missed a wide-open three, off the backboard. I guess the line is too close to the rim. New Zealand is playing very well., spacing the floor and then hitting the three or going hard to the rim, since there's no real defensive threat there and 8 minutes in the score is +11 for NZ who is doing a great job closing the paint since the 3-pt shot is not falling for Slovenians.

Two good shots by Edo Muri? and the score is only +7 for NZ.Never mind, it's a 10-point game again at the break. Gogi is not playing which is just as well, as the rest of the team is playing like a bunch of hungover logs. (Sorry for the outburst, I sometimes get carried away). Maybe things pick up in the second half, especially the transition offense, which is Slovenia's strongest weapon and was non-existent in the first two periods. Slovenia trails 37:27 at half-time, and New Zealand is playing really well.

Third period

Some life at last, from the ever-active Dragon jr. (Zoran) who first forced a foul then made a great pass to a rolling Omi? who actually dunked it. But you'll be happy to know the defense is looking up and there seems to be life yet in the Slovenians. some good D and quick transition dor an open 3-point shot, and it's a 3-point game. 37:34 for NZ, who also committed 5 fouls in the first two minutes and did not score a bucket until 3 minutes in. Goran made a great bounce-pass to a rolling Omi?, but his ball-handling skills fumbled that chance. The defense is still working well, but Slovenians just can't finish at the rim. Goran is mostly passing the ball and it's obvious he can hit anyone at anytime dead-on, but the finish is still lacking, though to be frank, NZ is being quite aggressive and fouling every shot at the rim. 5 minutes in it's 41:37 for NZ and Goran picked up his first foul.

And then Goran shows his skills finishing through contact surrounded by 3 opposing players and then assisting beautifully with a no-look behind the back bounce pass for a easy lay up. And just like that it's 44:43 and a time-out. (Honorable mention to a guy in the audience that could moonlight as the Suns Gorilla)

Slovenians come out with a small line-up, playing fast transition and good defense. 2 minutes left in the third, Slovenia takes the lead for the first time since the first quarter, it's 46:48. The driving force for the Slovenia is Zoran Dragi?, he's everywhere, and really aggressive.

At the end of third it's 46:50, Slovenia won the period with 9:23!

Fourth period

Some mistakes on both sides, SLO down by 2 again and Gogi's back, connecting on his first two attempts, and leaving the distinct impression he's 40% faster than anyone on the floor. There's no real defense being played in the first few minutes, it's let-it-fly time, obviously. But New Zealand is getting the better of it. And Goran answers right back, his first 3-point shot. and Slovenia is back up by 1 point. Just for a moment though as Gogi picks up his 2nd foul after a missed shot. Zoran Dragi? is still everywhere, imagine a white PJ Tucker, on every loose ball. Goran missed a step-back and failed to finish through contact on the next attempt, but he did force a foul and made both free-throws.

Another wide open three by Gogi who's putting the team on his back with 2 minutes to go but the score is tied at 69. A counter-attack by the Dragi? brothers ends with a lay-up, Goran has 16 points already, Zoran 12. Some good D and Slovenia is up by 5 with a minute left to play. After a made three, NZ is only down by 2 and my voice is raised, yelling at the tv after Zoran missed a lay-up.

15 seconds to go, Balaži? made both free-throws for Slovenia and it's +4. A great effort on D leaves Domen Lorbek alone under the basket and the final score is 74:80.

Summary

Slovenia won after a bad start, tightening on D and running and spacing the floor much better in the second half powered by the Dragi? dynamic duo (Goran had 16 points and Zoran had 13). The game itself was not pretty by any standard, but it did show why Gogi is invaluable for the national team, as the game switches a gear when he's playing.

More on the stats of the game and some quotes from the players will follow in another article.

Goran Dragi?'s first appearance in international games this summer gives Slovenia the edge over the resilient New Zealand in a friendly game in Kaunas (Lithuania).

Not surprisingly, Gogi did not start the game. The reason being two-fold: he's limited to 25 minutes per game for the friendlies and the starting five is sort of used to each other. Still, we're all looking forward to some Dragon magic.

Box Score

Sovenia - New Zealand
80:74 (14:13, 13:24, 23:9, 30:28)

G. Dragi? 18, Z. Dragi? 13, D. Lorbek 12, Muri? 11; Webster 23.

First period

Starting he game, nothing really pretty, a few made shots on both sides, quite a few unforced errors, not a lot of team-play. Basically, the ball is bouncing around like a hot potato. Slovenians are relying mostly on the 3-point shot and half-court offense, not their best point, as they are best in transition and playing fast. So far, the speed leaves a lot to be desired. Although Domen Lorbek did just use the best Dragonshake I ever saw him do, but the defense is still way too slow.

Here's hoping Gogi can make a difference, he just entered with his bro, 2 minutes to go in the first period. And immediately the defense picks up, forces a bad shot and a good assist in transition. It's a different team with the Dragi? brothers playing, 1 minute to go Slovenia is down by one. Goran's first step-back went wide but the last attack was classic Gogi- PnR on the 3-point line and Goran attacking the help with a strong move, pushing the defending center off in mid-air and finishing with a lay-up. After first, SLO:NZ 14:13 (don't laugh, it's normal(ish) for an international friendly).

Second period

Defense is still the better part of Slovenia's game, while offensively they keep relying on half-court sets and forced shots while giving the ball away. A big problem is also the physicality and height of the NZ's players, as SLO doesn't really have a strong paint presence. Goran is being hounded by the opposing players and as a result he missed his patented step-back, again. Plus, everything else Slovenians are doing is basically a 3-point shot, which is not falling. Maybe a time-out for the Slovenians will help.

5-minutes int the second period, not much to like on the SLO side, except for some good transition defense, but we are being man-handled everywhere else. And Goran missed a wide-open three, off the backboard. I guess the line is too close to the rim. New Zealand is playing very well., spacing the floor and then hitting the three or going hard to the rim, since there's no real defensive threat there and 8 minutes in the score is +11 for NZ who is doing a great job closing the paint since the 3-pt shot is not falling for Slovenians.

Two good shots by Edo Muri? and the score is only +7 for NZ.Never mind, it's a 10-point game again at the break. Gogi is not playing which is just as well, as the rest of the team is playing like a bunch of hungover logs. (Sorry for the outburst, I sometimes get carried away). Maybe things pick up in the second half, especially the transition offense, which is Slovenia's strongest weapon and was non-existent in the first two periods. Slovenia trails 37:27 at half-time, and New Zealand is playing really well.

Third period

Some life at last, from the ever-active Dragon jr. (Zoran) who first forced a foul then made a great pass to a rolling Omi? who actually dunked it. But you'll be happy to know the defense is looking up and there seems to be life yet in the Slovenians. some good D and quick transition dor an open 3-point shot, and it's a 3-point game. 37:34 for NZ, who also committed 5 fouls in the first two minutes and did not score a bucket until 3 minutes in. Goran made a great bounce-pass to a rolling Omi?, but his ball-handling skills fumbled that chance. The defense is still working well, but Slovenians just can't finish at the rim. Goran is mostly passing the ball and it's obvious he can hit anyone at anytime dead-on, but the finish is still lacking, though to be frank, NZ is being quite aggressive and fouling every shot at the rim. 5 minutes in it's 41:37 for NZ and Goran picked up his first foul.

And then Goran shows his skills finishing through contact surrounded by 3 opposing players and then assisting beautifully with a no-look behind the back bounce pass for a easy lay up. And just like that it's 44:43 and a time-out. (Honorable mention to a guy in the audience that could moonlight as the Suns Gorilla)

Slovenians come out with a small line-up, playing fast transition and good defense. 2 minutes left in the third, Slovenia takes the lead for the first time since the first quarter, it's 46:48. The driving force for the Slovenia is Zoran Dragi?, he's everywhere, and really aggressive.

At the end of third it's 46:50, Slovenia won the period with 9:23!

Fourth period

Some mistakes on both sides, SLO down by 2 again and Gogi's back, connecting on his first two attempts, and leaving the distinct impression he's 40% faster than anyone on the floor. There's no real defense being played in the first few minutes, it's let-it-fly time, obviously. But New Zealand is getting the better of it. And Goran answers right back, his first 3-point shot. and Slovenia is back up by 1 point. Just for a moment though as Gogi picks up his 2nd foul after a missed shot. Zoran Dragi? is still everywhere, imagine a white PJ Tucker, on every loose ball. Goran missed a step-back and failed to finish through contact on the next attempt, but he did force a foul and made both free-throws.

Another wide open three by Gogi who's putting the team on his back with 2 minutes to go but the score is tied at 69. A counter-attack by the Dragi? brothers ends with a lay-up, Goran has 16 points already, Zoran 12. Some good D and Slovenia is up by 5 with a minute left to play. After a made three, NZ is only down by 2 and my voice is raised, yelling at the tv after Zoran missed a lay-up.

15 seconds to go, Balaži? made both free-throws for Slovenia and it's +4. A great effort on D leaves Domen Lorbek alone under the basket and the final score is 74:80.

Summary

Slovenia won after a bad start, tightening on D and running and spacing the floor much better in the second half powered by the Dragi? dynamic duo (Goran had 18 points and Zoran had 13). The game itself was not pretty by any standard, but it did show why Gogi is invaluable for the national team, as the game switches a gear when he's playing.

More on the stats of the game and some quotes from the players will follow in another article.

After hurtling through the first "half" of the season to reach the All-Star Break, the Phoenix Suns will enter the final stretch of the season with just 28 games left to make the playoffs.

End of the home-heavy stretch

After playing 24 of the first 40 games on the road, the Suns enjoy a long, long time at home before the stretch run after the All Star Break.

The Suns spend much of late January and February in the friendly confines of US Airways Center, beginning with a franchise record eight straight home games (over 19 days) and a run up to the All-Star Break that includes more national TV games than all of last season, the Suns will come into the final stretch ready to spread their wings.

Counting in the All-Star Break, the Suns will have only played three road games in 39 days versus 11 home games. That's about to change again, once the break is over.

Post-All Star Road Trip (10 games, 7 on road)

Coming out of the break, with whatever team is left (ie. the trade deadline), the Suns will get back on the road to test their mettle.

The list of opponents could be very difficult to beat, but a playoff-caliber team ought to be able to win more than they lose. Those Suns fans outside the Phoenix area will continue to enjoy many of the Suns games on TV, with 5 games on either NBATV or TNT.

That TNT game at OKC will be the last Suns game on TNT until late April.

Assuming the Suns are in the playoff chase, with say a 32-22 record to start this stretch, a 5-5 split would put them at 37-27. A 6-4 finish here would put them 12 over, at 38-26, just in time for a nice home stretch.

Back home (10 games, 9 at home)

In this crazy, unbalanced season, the Suns now get a home stand of 9 games out of 10 in US Airways Center. There's only one back-to-back in the whole set, and of course that's against the Texas twosome of Chandler Parsons employers.

Here, the Suns need to finish 7-3 at least, before the season-ending gauntlet of roadies. Going 7-3 would raise their record to about 45-29.

Road grind to end it (8 games, 6 on road)

Just like last season, the Suns finish it up with mostly road games that could derail their playoff hopes. Read it and fret.

Six of the opponents in the final eight games could easily be playoff opponents, also fighting for positioning in the Wild West. The Suns will have to win 5 of 8 to get that 50-win mark. Tall task. It doesn't help that they play Dallas once again on the back end of a back-to-back, and most of these on the enemy's court.

There you have it, Suns fans. A way for the Suns to get that needed 50 wins to ensure a playoff spot.

ESPN’s Summer Forecast series this week released a long list of NBA writers’ opinions to focus on where teams will finish the 2014-15 regular season. Wouldn’t you know it, the...

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