When Eric Bledsoe was sidelined with a meniscus tear there was some concern that the Orange Express may have been derailed. The Suns have repudiated those doubts in line with what has become a signature trend this season.
I know what you're thinking. Actually I don't. You might be thinking of something absolutely terrifying for all I know. But what I was leading into was that I've missed my periodical postings of this the last two Sundays. Now I'm sure some of you are thinking, "Oh, he does this on Sundays?"
Well, I'm supposed to. Unfortunately, I've been (insert obligatory excuse here) and have missed some time.
Bledsoe has also missed some time this season. 23 games so far. When the Suns take the court against the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday, seeking vindication for a loss on January 7th, he will have missed exactly one half of the team's games his season. The team has notched an impressive mark of 16-8 with Bledsoe suiting up, including 2-1 in games without Goran Dragic.
But after some initial growing pains the Suns are proving that they can still hold their own without the dynamic presence that Eric brings to the floor.
When Bledsoe was out with a shin injury from 11/15 - 11/29 the Suns played at a .500 clip (3-3). Included in that six game span was the savage beating they doled out to the Portland Trail Blazers (120-106).
Bledsoe went down again on 12/30, this time with a more deleterious right knee meniscus tear. When the Suns kicked off 2014 by mucking along to a 2-5 record, while playing insipid ball, it was worrisome. The apparent regression now appears to have merely been a recalibration, however, and the Orange Express is back to running on all cylinders.
A due amount of credit goes to team leader and catalyst Goran Dragic. Goran is the engine that makes this team go.
In the 17 games since Bledsoe went down Goran has averaged 22.5 points and 6.4 assists per game. Maybe even more ridiculous is that Dragic has shot .532 from the field and .462 from three point range. Dude is sizzling. Dragon fire.
What is astounding is that this parching play may very well be what we will become accustomed to for the rest of the season. Goran's career arc shows that he plays better in the second half of seasons than the first.
Dragic's true shooting percentage has risen to .604 on the season, good for 13th in the league and just .002 out of cracking the top 10. Among players averaging at least 20 points a game only LeBron James and Kevin Durant have a higher true shooting percentage. And that's right, last night Goran cracked the 20 points per game mark. These offensive pyrotechnics slate Goran at 6th in the league in offensive win shares. He is ninth in the league in WS/48.
Not only does Goran deserve to be an All-Star, he should make an All-NBA team if he maintains a level near his current torrid pace. He is that good.
And the Suns' play is mirroring their leader's. They have now pushed their record to 10-7 while Beldsoe recovers from his torn meniscus. That includes winning eight of their last ten after the troubling 2-5 start. They have a current five game win streak, matching their highest on the season.
These wins haven't been the byproduct of a weak patch in their schedule, either. They have beaten the Indiana Pacers twice. They swept a four game road trip, something only the Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs have also accomplished. Their last seven wins have come by at least seven points. Their last two losses during a 7-2 stretch have been by just six and three.
The team is once again playing at the high level they achieved during the interregnum between Eric's injuries. But this present juncture has them filling it up on offense at a season best rate. The Suns have scored 120 or more points in four of their last ten games. They have only topped 120 once this season with Bledsoe in the lineup. Phoenix is averaging 112 points per game over their last ten outings.
Remember when Jeff Hornacek told me he thought the team could score 103 points per game and the national media scoffed? Well, damn the scoffers and their scoffing... The Suns are averaging a league sixth best 104.9 points per game.
This hasn't been a one man job by Dragic, though. The aforementioned coach (of the year) Hornaeck has left an indelible stamp on this team. He has been a coaching prodigy this season. Green and Plumlee continue to be a case example of grand larceny. Leandro Barbosa has proved there are free lunches.
And the Morrii have been playing like men off the bench. The Suns have self-tilted their reserve unit as the "Bench Mob", which is actually a common name between this current incarnation of Phoenix basketball and the last one that took the court without making my eyes want to go sit in the corner.
Unfortunately, the Lakers have also taken to the fancy of calling their second unit the "B*&ch Mob" (not sure what happened to the other letters there), and have done so for the totality of the time Phoenix has done the same . Don't believe me? Check it out. I don't lie, but the ball absolutely does sometimes. Actually, I do all the time too. It's shameless...
Yes, back when the Fantastic Five were closing out fourth quarters during the Suns' Sleeping Beauty (screw Cinderella) run in the 2009-10 season the Land of 1,000 Lakes bench had the same damn name.
Now some things are just kind of weird (like kissing your sister), but others are slimy and disgusting (like kissing your sister). "Bench Mob" has now entered the latter part of that spectrum. Also, I'm not sure why that sister reference keeps popping up.
But... the guys subbing in from the purple pine have stepped up big. Another potential downfall for the team when Bledsoe went down was a lack of quality depth to absorb his minutes. Downfall averted.
Markieff Morris, specifically, has averaged 17.7 points over the last ten games while providing consistent production by topping double digits in each contest. His offense has come at an efficient .522 from the field and .847 from the free throw line. His career, which appeared to be in tremulant standing, is on solid footing.
And so are the Suns. Poised to wreak havoc on a parlous stretch that includes games against the Houston Rockets, Golden St. Warriors and Miami Heat headed into the All-Star break. And they will be prepared, Bledsoe or no Bledsoe.
The way the team has played has kept them right in the thick of things in the Western Conference playoff picture. It has mollified the urgency of Bledsoe's return to the lineup. He doesn't need to ride in on a white horse. The Suns are already riding on the back of a fire-breathing dragon. Instead, Eric can focus on making sure his body is completely right.
So don't worry Eric, they've got this. This is how the new Suns roll.
With Goran Dragic appearing to be firmly in control of the player of the week for the foreseeable future, it's time to switch things up a bit and look at other players on the roster who are stepping up and making a difference. Let's kick things off by looking at one of the more overlooked contributors on the court this week...Markieff Morris.
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Weekly Stat Averages:
Points: 16.2 FG%: .484 Rebounds: 6.2 Assists: 2.0 Blocks: 1.2
Markieff Morris appears to be finally turning the corner and finding his rhythm on the Phoenix Suns. After showing flashes of potential over his first couple of season, but struggling to remain consistent, Keef is stringing together many more good games together while greatly reducing his bad ones...and becoming not only the star of the bench, but one of the most versatile players on the team.
Keef averaged around 26 minutes per game this week, which is actually on par with most of the starters, save for Miles Plumlee who averages less. So even though he is coming off the bench as a sixth man, he is definitely one of the key components of the Suns, and a big reason for their success as well.
This week, Keef exploded for what was his best all around performance of the season, scoring 27 points and grabbing 15 rebounds against the Cleveland Cavaliers on the road. While he would never come close to matching that performance again the rest of the week, he still played very well overall, scorning in double figures in all five games.
Although Markieff is still prone to inconsistency at times, it's a far cry from the type of inconsistency he exhibited over the past couple of seasons. This season, his is averaging 12.8 points per game, .481 FG%, and 5.8 rebounds per game...by far his best stat line of his three seasons on the Suns. Even more promising is the fact that he is still improving those numbers overall, as his good games become more frequent and his bad games less so.
Hopefully, this trend will continue, as he gives the Suns an added dimension that they simply can't replace without him on the floor. Sure, Frye gives them spacing and can score in bunches from beyond the arc. But Keef is very adept at scoring from all over the floor. He can put the ball on the ground and take his opponent to the basket, shoot a mid-range jumper off the dribble, or even hit the three which he is doing a lot less of, but at a much higher percentage than seasons' past.
Markieff may never be a star player, but he is proving to be a very solid player, and a bargain as the 13th overall pick in the 2010 draft. Just a season ago, many fans were lamenting his spot on the roster and would have been content to trade him away for a six pack and a bag of chips. Thankfully that didn't happen, and he is turning into an important part of this team, and another valuable asset should the Suns ever choose to go a different direction...not saying it will happen, but you know...McDonough.
For now though, let's just appreciate the player Markieff has finally become and how much he has helped the Suns this season. Here's hoping Keef can continue to play at a high level and continue his progression on an upward trend. With Bledsoe still out and the Suns making a valiant push for the post season, Keef will continue to be an integral part of the offense, and a valuable part of the team as a whole going forward.
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The Suns cooled off Al Jefferson plus Goran Dragic continued to show why he belongs in the All Star Game.
There was no let down for the Phoenix Suns Saturday night at US Airways Center. They returned home and made quick of the Charlotte Bobcats with a 105-95 win and the game wasn't as close as the score showed.
The Suns led by as much as 27 points and the last time they trailed was at 13-10 less than midway through the first quarter.
That opening quarter belonged to Goran Dragic, who scored 15 of his 25 points on 5-7 shooting, 1-1 from deep and 4-5 at the line.
"It was just in the flow of the game," explained Dragic about his hot start. "Not only me, we tried to start good as a team, tried to build the lead and get into halftime with a 10 point advantage"
Phoenix accomplished their goal leading by 18 when they headed into the locker room mostly on the back of a scorching second quarter from Marcus Morris.
Morris scored 13 of his 15 points knocking down 5-6 shots and two threes. During the four games the team played from January 22nd to January 27th Morris averaged five points on four shots and 43.8% shooting. He's regained his rhythm the last three putting up double figures in each while shooting 54.8% from the field.
More important than anything the Suns did on the offensive end they were able to slow down Bobcats center Al Jefferson.
Jefferson was coming off a three game stretch where he averaged 35.7 points and 14 rebounds was held to 10 points and six rebounds. Big Al struggled shooting 4-15 from the field.
"We wanted to keep throwing guys at him," said Coach Hornacek after the game. "Sometimes it's the case of a guy gets an early foul so we switched over and put Channing on him. We didn't want any of our guys to get two quick ones. When you got a bunch of bigs you can continually rotate guys on him just for the purpose of fouls and plus someone be fresh on him at all times. You have to have that to play against him."
"You got to make it hard," continued Hornacek regarding their strategy with Jefferson. "We want to try push him out, catch it farther out, pressure on the passer so they can't throw a nice easy pass to him. Then when he makes his moves and spins you gotta have other guys there."
Frye, whose reputation on the defensive end isn't heralded, was a big part of the defense on the Bobcats center. Big Al gets added to the list of Blake Griffin and Kevin Love as efficient scoring bigs Frye has helped slow down.
"He's a load man," said Frye about Jefferson. "I just didn't want him to have 40 on me. He's playing pretty much as good as basketball as Kevin Durant the last 5 or 6 games. He's a workload down there and I saw him get comfortable early and I got to figure out a way to turn his water off. My teammates did a great job of helping me and sticking with the plan making sure the second and third options he felt like someone was there to mix it up. I just battled, I just wanted to make him tired and work for it."
As a team the Suns held Charlotte to 41% shooting and through the first three quarters it was an even more impressive 36.7% before letting things get a little slopping in the final 12 minutes.
The Suns have won five straight to get to a season high 11 games over .500. Their next four games are against teams .500 or better starting with the Bulls at home on Tuesday.