The Phoenix Suns face the two-time defending champions Miami HEAT in Phoenix on Tuesday, their final game before a long All-Star weekend that most players will get to enjoy with rest.
Bright Side of the Sun exchanged some a series of questions with our Miami HEAT SB Nation partner, Hot Hot Hoops.
This is a great way to get some inside scoop on the opponent - in this case, the Suns' Tuesday night foe.
Obviously, the HEAT are doing fine with a great offense and 35-14 record. But they are only 15th in defensive points-per-possession this season. Are they just going through the motions of the regular season, or is there something wrong that bodes poorly for the post season?
Matt Pineda, Hot Hot Hoops: Part of the problem is that the Heat are seeing everyone's best effort every single night. Nights in Utah, Charlotte, and Sacramento that normally are dull come with extra motivation from the opponent. The Heat are in their fourth year of being the target and honestly are just buying time until the playoffs. Their only motivation is to be healthy, get some good rhythm and not far too far behind Indiana. It scares us, because you don't always know if that switch can get flipped, but they've been here before.
What's the latest on Michael Beasley's contributions for Miami? Is he still a great contributor to the rotation, or has his star dipped a bit?
MP: Michael Beasley was contributing very nicely until the beginning of January, and then he lost touch a bit. Spoelstra has given him much less time, and more recently has tightened his bench even more. I believe Beasley will be a spot player in the playoffs, unless things change. It seems as though he couldn't do enough defensively to warrant more time on the floor. What we are happy about....he hasn't gotten in trouble and is always saying the right things. There will come a time when the Heat really need him and he will come through.
Dwyane Wade has played the last several games at regular minutes and scored well. Is he back to his old self?
MP: No. Wade will not be his old self again. We have just accepted it over here. We hope that he can be his old self for some of the playoffs, because honestly that's all we need. We saw flashed of it against the Spurs and Pacers. And when he is that, the Heat are really really good. But the truth is that the Heat just don't need Wade to out-do himself in the regular season.
Tell us something about Greg Oden's production. What has he shown that he can bring to the playoffs for this team?
MP: Greg Oden is progressing, but at a slow pace. He is getting more action, and we anticipate that it will take some time for him to find his niche and groove in the offense. He has protected the rim well, and once his timing is back, he should be much better on the glass. He seems to move well out there, and it's all about the playoffs for Greg. The Heat signed him to play some hard minutes on Roy Hibbert. If Oden can challenge Roy for 10-12 minutes in the East Finals, then it will be a success, anything until then is just progress and Greg is going through it now.
What's your prediction on Tuesday's game against the Suns?
MP: I anticipate the Suns to push the Heat as far as they can. Miami should be upset with how they played in Utah, especially LeBron James who had 5 turnovers and only 13 points. I think he will come out much more aggressive. I will not be surprised to see the Suns win, from what I have seen, they play very good basketball, and the Heat will have their hands full knowing they have the Warriors the very next night. But because it comes with 2 days off and a loss before hand, I think the Heat grind out a win, a high scoring win.
And if you are curious, here are my answers their questions on the Suns
This was a rough week for the Suns, going 1-2 overall. However, the way they ended the week on such a high note against the Western Conference rival Warriors almost makes it feel like everything was smooth sailing. One of the biggest reasons for the success in that game was the Suns' back-court. No, not the Slash Brothers...this time it's the G-Force.
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Combined Stats against the Warriors:
Points: 59 FG%: .714 3PT% .727 Rebounds: 7 Assists: 10 (All Dragic) Steals: 3
Before I start, let me just explain that I fully understand that one game does not constitute an entire week's worth of play. But let's be honest, there weren't a lot of positives to be taken out of either of the two losses this week...save for Goran Dragic,of course, who has been stuck playing on GOD mode for the last month and a half (more on that later).
However, we did get to see just how potent and incendiary this Suns backcourt of Goran and Green can be when they are both playing at a high level. And that was what I really wanted to highlight in this week's "Heat Check". We all know how great Goran Dragic has been playing, and if that's news to you then you either aren't a basketball fan (why are you here?), or you've been watching too much ESPN (Lebron, Durant, Lebron, Melo, Lebron).
On Sunday night, the potential of the Suns back-court was on full display. In addition to Goran Dragic's career-high 34 points on only 13 shots, Gerald Green also exploded with 25 points on 15 shots. This was an extremely efficient performance by both players, who shot Golden State out of the arena by scoring 59 points on 20 of 28 shooting, compared to just 45 points for the Splash Brothers...who only made 16 of their 33 attempts.
This isn't to say that Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson aren't a better duo overall than Goran and Green; when comparing them on their performance in terms of consistency, it really isn't close. However, Suns' fans already know what to expect from Goran Dragic, who has been carrying this team for the last couple of months. But last night we got a chance to see just how deadly the Suns can be when Dragic has another potent scorer along side of him...something we haven't seen nearly enough of since Eric Bledsoe went down.
In fact, last night's performance was even better than either of the previous showings against Golden State when the Slash Brothers were in full effect. In the first game, Bledsoe and Dragic combined for 45 points to help the Suns secure the win. However, in the second game, Dragic and Bledsoe combined for only 15 points...a poor game for both players which basically ensured a loss.
The 59 points on 20 of 28 shooting by the G-Force last night was by far the best performance we have seen from the Suns back-court this season...who would have thought that kind of game would even be possible without Eric Bledsoe in the line-up?
Of course, this is in large part still because of Dragic, and how he has become one of the most productive and exciting players in the NBA this season. He has scored over 15 points in each of the last 22 games...and in that same stretch he is averaging over 23 points in each.
But still, Green's impact is undeniable when he is on his game. In fact, the Suns have won 10 straight games when Gerald Green scores 20 or more points. So it seems fairly obvious that with Bledsoe still out for an undetermined amount of time, it's up to Gerald Green to be the x-factor.
This isn't to take away from P.J. Tucker's performance either. His 16 points and 15 rebounds, along with his toughness and hustle, helped the Suns tremendously. But P.J. fills a different niche altogether than Goran and Green, who can simply set the scoreboards on fire when they are playing at their best.
We've now seen just how good the Suns can be as a whole with Goran and Green leading the charge...now it's up to them to find a way to do it together consistently.
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By producing the franchise's 2nd worst record ever, you would think most of last year's Phoenix Suns would be out of the league by now. However, no less than 12 of 16 players are playing significant roles this season on NBA teams.
At the moment, the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns are 30-20 - their best 50-game start since 2009-2010. The Suns currently sit in 6th place in the Western Conference with 32 games to go.
Last year's 25-57 record is a distant memory, one that only gets conjured up when a reporter asked a "then and now" question or a visiting player happens to have played on that team.
"We're all happy now. It's really painful to me that...everybody wanted to forget that year, including me. That's hard for me to swallow."
These words could have been said by any of the twelve players on last year's roster that have moved on, but they were uttered by Luis Scola when the Pacers recently visited the valley. Scola was a great guy who really meant well and wanted to win games, but he was part of the team-wide frustration that enveloped the team and dragged it down.
Let's take a look at what's happened to the worst team in the Phoenix Suns franchise history.
You may not want to associate these guys with the dark days, but Goran Dragic, P.J. Tucker, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris have made it all the way through these downs and ups. They have slugged through the dark side of basketball and are now experiencing the sun-shiny side. Some might call it the Bright Side of basketball.
Statistically, Goran Dragic had the best season of his young career last year, setting career bests in minutes, points, free throws, assists, steals and every other category thanks to starting every game he was healthy. He even picked up his play in the second half despite the team falling apart around him.
This season, he is playing at nearly an All-Star level (20.4 points, 6.1 assists and 1.4 steals per game). Dragic has six 30-point games this season as the Suns' #1 scorer, including a career high 34 on only 13 shots on Saturday night.
"Yeah, it wasn't like we played bad defense on any of those shots," said Steph Curry after the game. "They were dagger shots, a big-time player made big-time shots so we'll tip our cap to him."
"He's a guy that, I talked about before the game," Warriors coach Mark Jackson said after the game. "He's got a case to be made that he should be in the All-Star Game - the way he's playing. He's making great decisions out there, whether it be scoring for himself or making plays and he made it tough on our defense."
P.J. Tucker is another who had a career year last season in every category, thanks to getting the minutes he earned through hard work. But he couldn't lead the team to victories, mainly because he wasn't an offensive force. Ideally, Tucker is that unheralded guy who helps a good team win games.
As proof, Tucker has started all 50 games this season for the 30-20 Suns. He's not an offensive force, or a defensive stopper or rebounder extraordinaire, but he's a little of everything. Last night, he became the first Suns player since Shawn Marion (in 2007) to post 15 points, 15 rebounds and 4 steals in a game. In Suns franchise history, Tucker is joined only by Shawn Marion (10 times), Amare Stoudemire (once) and Charles Barkley (seven times) to accomplish that feat.
"PJ is always a monster. He is such a great guy and player. He is an energy guy. He is going to defend. He is going to rebound. Even when we need the basket, he can score. Most of the time, they put JO on him and he spaced the floor and made a three."
-- Goran Dragic on his teammate for 1.5 seasons, after the win Saturday night.
After those two, the team struggled mightily last season. Markieff Morris is the only other Suns player to make it all the way through last season and remain on the roster this year. His year was utterly forgettable, showing a decline in nearly every category despite being given an opportunity to shine as a young player on a bad team. But this year, Markieff is in the conversation of 'Sixth Man of the Year' with career highs in points (12.5), rebounds (5.8) and shooting percentages in 25 minutes per game off the bench.
Brother Marcus never meshed with the coach (Hunter) and eventually made his way into a 30-game doghouse. He, too, has had a resurgence this season, putting up career highs in points (10.1), rebounds (4.3) and shooting percentages in 22 minutes per game off the bench.
The proof is in the pudding. Last year's team was not the least talented team in the NBA, as many purported. The talent was there.
This recap should just reinforce what we already knew. Last year's team had plenty of NBA talent, but there was no clear leader, direction or work ethic to get the best out of the players. Last year's team is proof positive that you can't just cobble together any 10 rotation-caliber players and expect them to play well together.
We all knew this. But it's good to see that, despite the terrible season, they have (nearly) all gotten back off the mat and produced at a high level this season.
"We're all happy now."