There was some irony that tonight's game came down to the two players, Eric Bledsoe and Gordon Hayward, making plays late in the game that in broad strokes are big time statements going forward past tonight. After Hayward nailed a step-back three to tie the game Bledsoe followed it up (with Hayward guarding him) on a game winning three-pointer leaving only 0.7 seconds on the clock.
"I didn't think he was going to shoot a three," Coach Hornacek said after the game. " I thought he was going to attack, but he saw Hayward playing off of him."
For the most part the first three quarters were largely forgettable as the both teams started off slow and played with very little energy. In fact the first three quarters were very similar to what last years team did consistently with low scoring, sloppy play leading to a tight race to the finish. That should not be confused with good, exciting close basketball, but rather the ladder. More often than not the Suns lost those games last year, but last year they did not have a player like Bledsoe.
"This one was uglier," Coach Hornacek after the game on comparing this to the first game of the season.
Through those first two quarters Bledsoe was 0-3 from the field with more combined turnovers and fouls (6) than points and assists (3). It was not his best performance early on, but the team hung in there behind P.J. Tucker and Miles Plumlee overall energy.
Those two shouldered the load early and then passed the torch to the newest member of the "Great Debut Club," Dionte Christmas.
After not seeing any action in the season opener it was trial by fire for Christmas in the third quarter as the team needed energy, and more importantly, a healthy guard.
In the waning minutes of the second quarter Goran Dragic collided with Tucker and a few Jazz players causing him to leave the game. He did return after the injury, but in an effort to protect Dragic the team sent him to the back for more tests which led to the official diagnosis of "right facial contusion."
Christmas stepped in not only admirably, but effectively. He scored 7 points in the third quarter sparking the team that, without him, would have finished with 13 points (on 6-19 shooting) and a six point hole.
"Dionte is a guy that brings the energy everyday in practice," Coach Hornacek on trusting Christmas in a crucial spot. "He can shoot the ball, and the way we were shooting the ball I figured, lets put him in and see if he can make some shots for us, and he did."
The confidence that Christmas had rubbed off on Bledsoe as he came in and proved that it is not about the amount of shots you make, but when you make them. For Bledsoe his first field goal came at the 10:28 mark in the fourth quarter. Drive, finish, and-1, putting the Suns up five points.
Here is a chronology of Bledsoe's fourth quarter points after that:
Between the stellar debut of Christmas and the heroics of Bledsoe the 2013-2014 Phoenix Suns are 2-0 to start the season. More important, they are exciting to watch and developing before our eyes.
It is early on, but if this is any indication of what kind of coach Jeff Hornacek is and what kind of talent evaluator Ryan McDonough is, this is just the appetizer to what might become a very good team in the near future. This is just a taste, a sampling, and so far it is leaving most people wanting more.
This season the Phoenix Suns (1-0) and Utah Jazz (0-1) are more than just gambling with the odds of an inevitable lottery at the end of the season, but with the future of their teams after not extending two of their younger, more talented players.
Last night night a deadline came and went as both Eric Bledsoe and Gordon Hayward, key pieces for the future for each team, both left the table with out contract extensions.
The season opener was about as exciting as a season opener can be for a team in the position of the Suns. They came out on fire, with energy, and ran a young, potential playoff team out of their gym. Compare that to last season where the Suns scored only 85 points and lost in an ugly affair to another young, potential playoff team.
With the Jazz in town this is a team that is a little more on the Suns level. They have some good young talent and are transitioning from the old guard.
In the first game of the season for the Jazz they were in it until the end and nearly stole one from the Thunder, who needed every bit of Kevin Durant's 42 points. The Jazz will showcase their young front-court while the Suns throw out their dynamic back-court to put the pressure on them.
Also, this marks the first game new Head Coach Jeff Hornacek will be in the opposite locker room against the Jazz since February 21st, 1994.
In that time frame he was a player for 477 regular season games and an assistant coach for 196 games (including four playoff games) creating a legacy there just as he had before in Phoenix. The former shooting shooting specialist coach for Andrei Kirilenko is now a head coach, going against his former team, a tale made in basketball folklore.
(Recent) History Lesson
The Jazz (3) and the Suns (3) have combined for six lottery (and nine overall first round) picks over the past four years. They both seemed to fight with the concept of being bad, contending, and being mediocre. In the end bad won because you cannot fight a lack of talent. They may both be positioned for another lottery pick again this year, but are both moving in the right direction going forward.
Head-to-Head (past four seasons including Playoffs)
Suns: 100.2 PPG (8 wins)
Jazz: 99.1 PPG (6 wins)
For a stretch, between 2010-2012, the Suns dominated this series. That coincided with the Jazz losing Deron Williams, changed to a rookie coach, and the Suns still being operated by Steve Nash. Since then the Jazz have won four of five and the games have been low scoring, grind it out type of affairs. With the new up-tempo Suns and the jazz featuring their young players in general this could be a much different, more fun to watch, game.
Derrick Favors vs. Suns: 11.0 PPG 7.5 RPG 1.8 BPG 56.9 FG% (8 games)
Channing Frye vs. Jazz: 9.3 PPG 4.1 RPG 1.0 BPG 43.0 FG% (21 games)
Horses of a different color and all. These are big men that play both front-court positions, but they play the game very different. The contrasting styles of Favors making athletic plays on both ends and Frye stretching the floor with his shooting should be fun to watch. Favors is one of the best young big man, speaking of contracts, he got one, and should make Frye work hard this game to get those looks he likes.
C - Miles Plumlee v. Enes Kanter
Potential Suns Inactives: Emeka Okafor (Neck, Out Indefinitely)
Potential Jazz Inactives: Trey Burke (Out, Finger), Brandon Rush (Out, Knee Surgery), Jeremy Evans (Doubtful, Shoulder), Marvin Williams (Out, Achilles Surgery), Andris Biedrins (Doubtful, Left Ankle)
Dragic vs. Hayward
It looks like the Jazz are starting the season big with Hayward and Jefferson starting together which is a stark contrast to the Suns starting small with Bledsoe and Dragic. This will mean that one of them will be guarding Hayward, who has to be motivated to dominate, and gives the Jazz a major height advantage over the Suns. Offensively this mismatch will be an advantage for both teams with Hayward being able to post and the Suns guards being able to blur past the slower forward.
Interesting Stat: 9 Assists
in the opening game the Suns shared the ball fairly well with 18 total assists keeping the offense moving, flowing, and tough to guard in the open court. That was a different story in the half-court. With 31 fast-break points most of the assists came from there. The Jazz did a good job allowing the Thunder to be an iso-team, which the Suns became in the half-court as the game grew long. Something to watch for tonight...
Meaningless Stat: 61.0% Two Point Shooting