The Phoenix Suns head to Memphis for the first leg of a back-to-back road swing against the ailing Grizzlies hoping to recover from a home loss to the last place Utah Jazz and stay on the good side of .500.
When: Tuesday December 3, 2013, 6:00 PM local time (8:00 EST)
Where: FedEx Forum Memphis, TN
Watch/Listen: TV: Fox Sports AZ Radio: 620 KTAR
The Suns and Grizzlies last squared off in Memphis on February 5th earlier this year. After trailing 77-72 with 7:30 to go Phoenix staged an impressive 24-13 rally to end the game, including outscoring Memphis 8-2 in the final two minutes, en route to a 96-90 victory. The inimitable Goran Dragic scored 15 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter as the Suns outscored the Grizzlies 31-19 overall in the period. Marcin Gortat led the Suns with 20 points, while Jerryd Bayless scored a game high 29 points.
The teams split the season series 2-2, as the 25 win Suns gave the 56 win Grizzlies fits.
Points per game: 93.6 (24) Points allowed: 95.9 (6)
ORtg: 102.8 (20) DRtg: 105.4 (15)
Memphis is still trying to play the same type of bruising, grinding style that took them to the Western Conference Finals last season, but are having dissimilar results. Last season the Grizzlies ranked first in points allowed at 89.3 per game and second in DRtg at 100.3. 16 games into this campaign those rankings have dropped precipitously. Their points allowed are still near the top of the league, but that is the product of a league low pace (89.4) since their defensive efficiency is middle of the pack.
Not helping matters is an injury to Marc Gasol, who is sidelined with an MCL sprain. Gasol was second team All-NBA and All-Defensive last season and anchored the Grizzlies' parsimonious defense. With Gasol on the court last season the Grizzlies yielded a scant 95.4 points per 100 possessions. Without Gasol that number ballooned to 102.2. The injury thrusts Kosta Koufous into a starting role, and he has averaged 8.3 points and 12.3 rebounds in the three games since the injury. But Gasol's absence, coupled with Randolph missing time with an ingrown toenail, has left the Memphis frontcourt cheesecloth thin and Koufous has logged 35+ minutes a night as a starter.
The Grizzlies are also still getting acclimated to new head coach David Joerger, after Lionel Hollins was unceremoniously dumped despite a deep playoff run. Joerger's reign is off to an inauspicious start as the team, which kept the core of a 56 win squad intact, has struggled to an 8-8 start. Mike Conley leads the team in scoring (18.3) and assists (6.1) while 2013 All-Star forward Zach Randolph leads the team in rebounding (9.1) while chipping in 16 points per game.
Points per game: 101.7 (13) Points allowed: 99.7 (15)
ORtg: 107.5 (8) DRtg: 105.4 (16)
The Suns have had a few days off to lick their wounds after a bad loss at home to the last place Utah Jazz and plenty of good and bad has been covered on the site during the down time. Here are the high (and low) lights...
Sean Sullivan detailed the exploits of the parching Goran Dragic who has averaged 22 points and 10 assists over the last five games.
Dave King illustrated a trend that has seen the Suns offense exploding (in a good way) while the defense has been imploding (in a bad way). While the Suns have averaged 107 points per game over the last four contests they have also yielded 100+ points in four straight games for an average of 106.5 points against. After only allowing their opponent to score over 100 twice in the first eight games they have yielded three digits in seven of the last nine. After stifling their competition to .437 shooting from the field in their first 13 games the Suns have yielded .485 over the last four games, including their first game over .500 (.512) against the offensively challenged Jazz.
Kris Habbas discussed shot selection and the Suns penchant for the three point shot. Will the Suns continue to attack the basket (against a team without their defensive anchor in the middle) and chuck up threes (against a middle of the pack team defending the line) with almost exclusive prejudice?
Pace: The Suns have trudged to a mark of about 89 possessions per game over the last four contests, well below their season average of 94. Memphis loves to play a methodical halfcourt style and is posting the lowest number of possessions per game this season (89.8) after a league low of 88.4 last season. Will the Suns revert to a more spirited style or will the Grizzlies dictate pace and lure the Suns into an ugly, languid game.
DragonBlade: With Eric Bledsoe back to (hopefully) 100% after a shin bruise we will likely get to see him starting in the backcourt with Dragic again. The process of the two best players on the team learning to coexist will continue in earnest tonight.
Zach Randolph: Last season all-star Randolph had his way with the Suns to the tune of 24.5 points and 13.3 rebounds per game, including a jaw dropping 38 point, 22 rebound performance in the team's first matchup. Equally impressive was the fact that he managed to shoot 66.7% from the field (42-63) while pouring in all those points. Although the Suns proved to be a difficult foe for the Grizzlies, this was a huge positional victory for Memphis. Will the inconsistent Markieff Morris and his teammates be able to manacle the menacing, big-bodied power forward?
A win tonight would be huge considering tomorrow night's game is the second in two nights against a team (Houston) that has been playing at a high level so far this season. The Grizzlies are just 3-5 at home this season (and 0-5 against their division... too bad we're not in their division) so this could be a good opportunity to steal a game from a team still trying to find its footing in the early season. The Suns went 4-11 last December, effectively ending their season, and need to avoid a repeat performance as their schedule ratchets up with a heavy dose of games against teams in the Western Conference with winning records.
The team stopped playing defense and starting hoisting up a ton of threes since the last time we were here to break things down. Seems fitting to get the boys back at the Round Table...
This season the Phoenix Suns (9-8) have been up-and-down, hence the record, which is largely due to a few flaws in the armor, as well as one major advantage they do not tap into enough.
After a week off the gang is back together to review the Suns current woes on the defensive end, their love affair with the three-point shot, and a secret weapon. This secret weapon might be so protected that even the Suns themselves do not realize it is there. Staring them in the eyes. Waiting for the chance to be unleashed.
Let's get it!
Twenty-Fifth Topic: Digging Deeper
1. Breaking the Ice: Are the 2013-2014 Phoenix Suns good enough to "not get up" for lesser opponents?
Jim Coughenour: Maybe it's not so much that as they gravitate towards playing to the level of their opponent. They've had respectable showings against members of the NBA's pantheon while struggling mightily when pitted against the downtrodden. It's definitely a different mindset for this team to be "expected" to easily dispatch an opponent when they've been viewed as improbably competitive from the outset. Are teams like the Jazz bringing the same mentality that the Suns used to compete with San Antonio? Are the Suns a young team that doesn't have the experience to take care of business and fritters away opportunities? Is it human nature that a team just doesn't get up for every single game the exact same way?
Jacob Padilla: Definitely not. I agree with Jim: they tend to play to their competition. That's the mark of a middle-of-the-road team, which is something the Sun don't want to be and something Jeff Hornacek definitely won't be satisfied with. Overall, this team is just all over the place and really difficult to get a good read of.
Dave King: They apparently think they are. One of my lingering concerns is guys getting comfortable with themselves and thinking they can just show up to play well and win the game. And by "guys", I mean the Morrii and maybe even Eric Bledsoe. They all exude supreme confidence in themselves (which is usually a sign of deep seated insecurity, but I digress), which can lead to not being dialed in unless they are trying to prove something to someone. While the Morrii might show a lack of effort, Bledsoe will potentially show a lack of leadership. Regardless, the Sacramento and Utah home losses show me a sign that this team has a tendency to believe too much in themselves.
Kris Habbas: Short answer no, long answer absolutely not. After the Jazz loss head coach Jeff Hornacek and multiple veteran players were vocally upset about the teams effort. The phrase "getting full of ourselves" was used by nearly everyone. This is something that is natural. It is human nature. Players are going to relax and get comfortable just like everyone else at their job, but like Channing Frye said after the game, "This is all we have to do today." So why not do it well?
Sreekar Jasthi: Let me echo my cohorts: hell no. This team has proven itself to be far better than what most people predicted before the season began, but there's no way this current iteration of the Phoenix Suns can coast against ANY teams if they truly hope to be a legitimate playoff team - the Utah Jazz proved this recently. One of the staples of this team thus far into the young season has been the passion, consistency, and hustle this group plays with. Not only has that been pleasant sight to behold after last year's abomination of a team, but it's a quality the Suns must keep displaying if they hope to be successful.
Sean Sullivan: No, not at all. The Suns have earned their record based on hustle, fight, and energy. They do not have the talent to rely on anything other than that. They have to compete with full effort each game.
2. Which is more likely to stick: The defense that gave up 95.25 PPG (5-3) or the recent defense (4-5) that is giving up 103.6 PPG?
JP: Push. The Suns will be better fully healthy, but they just don't have the players to be an elite defense Bledsoe, Tucker, Dragic, Frye and Plumlee are all plus defenders for the most part, but Gerald Green and the Morri are not, and those three have been playing a lot. It will be interesting to see how Hornacek balances the offensive and defensive players. I think they'll end up middle-of-the-pack, which is more than I was expecting at the start of the year.
DK: That's always been my worry, expressed on podcasts and in comments: Can this team keep up the defensive effort? Because defense is all about effort. The scheme is good. But it relies on the players all being dialed in together at the same time on rotations. With such inexperience on the team, it's going to be tough to stay dialed in for 82 games. I hope I'm wrong. I really do.
KH: With consistent energy and effort the product (high quality defense) can be a consistent, not necessarily yielding the same results, but the defense can be that good long-term. This team has lots of athletes and young legs to help maintain the defensive effort throughout the season.
SJ: Realistically, I think this team's defense will prove itself to be somewhere between those two marks. The Suns showed a lot of promise at the defensive end in the first stretch and I think that if healthy, Mike Longabardi will continue to get the most out of this team on that end. However, PPG is a flawed statistic anyway - I expect the team to continue to push the pace, meaning they'll score a lot and give up a lot, simply due to an above-average rate of possessions per game like we've seen in recent games.
SS: Somewhere in the middle? I do think the Suns are a better team defensively with Bledsoe, so I expect our defense to improve a bit with him back in the starting lineup. That said, I think the lock-down D we saw from the Suns early on was a bit inflated as well. I don't think they can sustain those kinds of numbers deep into the season. They can be a good defensive team, but I don't think they will be considered great.
JC: I would go with the latter. IF the team is going to remain competitive, the point differential will likely still be exiguous. Maybe +/- two points a game. So if the defense is only going to yield 95 a game then the offense is going to score 97 or less a game. Why? Because only teams that win 50 games are going to have big positive differentials... I see the Suns as a score 100+, give 100+ team. What's most important is defensive efficiency and I don't see this as a top 10 team. Maybe middle of the road. I think teams are already learning to exploit our weaknesses and it will be hard to expect the Suns to play with effort (one of our greatest potential strengths) like they're in the last minute of game seven of the NBA Finals all year... especially if things start to deteriorate.
3. Right now the Suns biggest issue on the defensive end is closing out possessions with rebounds (11.5 offensive rebounds allowed per game), leading to second chance points. How do they fix that?
DK: Being smaller than the opponent has been a franchise-long problem, so that's not going to change any time soon. There are only two solutions I can see: (1) get Alex Len healthy, and play him enough to make a difference in rebounding, or (2) guards have to participate in the rebounding effort. But if you go with (2) then there's fewer players leaking out on the break.
KH: That comes down to technique. I have always said that energy rebounders are bad defensive rebounders. They can create havoc and make plays on the offensive glass at will, but it takes discipline and technique to be a great defensive rebounder. The Suns do not have one of those type of players on the roster at the moment, but they do have a handful of energy rebounders...
SJ: I don't think that's going to change this season. The Suns simply don't have the rebounding prowess of most other teams. Plumlee is a rim-protector first and rebounder second - he's good at corralling boards but is often out of place on box-outs, which leads to offensive boards for the opposing team. Frye is an average rebounder AT BEST, as are the Morrii. Ideally, the Suns will be a "rebounding by committee" team, as guys like Bledsoe, Tucker, and Green are all above-average rebounders for their posession, but that's tough to do since the offense is so highly predicated on those guys leaking out on fast-breaks. Long-term, a healthy Alex Len (who has already shown a strong rebounding ability in his limited minutes) will help this problem.
SS: We need someone to back up Plumlee when he goes up to challenge/block the shot. Plumlee does a great job of protecting the rim, but in doing so, he is often out of position to gather a rebound. This is where we need that "rebounding by committee" mentality.
JC: Get some players that can rebound the ball? Channing, Markieff and P.J. are average at best on the glass. Rebounding is one of the more innate abilities, as far as basketball skills go, so I don't see them reshaping the team's identity here. Then again, if they can just keep one more rebound away from their opponent each game they would jump from bottom third in the league to middle of the pack. I guess they could start giving up easier shots so their opponents miss less and there are less opportunities for offensive rebounds... That would work.
JP: As with the defense, the Suns simply don't have the horses to be a great rebounding team. Plumlee is the best the team has, yet he's the one often challenging shots in the paint and when he's not doing that his lack of proper box-out technique leads to giving away boards to the other team. It is going to have to be a team effort, and I mean that literally: the Suns have to outwork their opponent on the glass every night.
4. The three-point shot is a novelty, but the team has fallen in love with it as of late. Is that a good or a bad thing?
KH: For a team that boasts one career three-point threat on the roster they do seem to love hoisting up the long-ball a lot. With two attacking point guards there are opportunities for drive and kick-outs for open looks at the three, but the issue is that there is nobody attacking the rim (with or without the ball) with the point guards. Again, human nature. Once you are doing something well it becomes easier and easier to over-rely on that even when it is not the most economical option.
SJ: I think it's a necessary evil. This team doesn't have as many consistent shooters as an offense like this normally needs, but it still needs to put up those three pointers simply based on how the gameplan is designed. With two primary ball-handlers, a stretch 4, and one rolling big man, it makes total sense for this team to heavily orient itself around three-pointers, fast-breaks and layups/dunks, and limit most other shots. Frankly, that's smart coaching.
SS: For the Suns, it's been a good thing. The Suns have several players who can shoot the ball fairly efficiently from beyond the arc...Tucker, Green, Marcus, Dragic, and Frye. The Suns depend on a spread offense, and utilizing their spacing by incorporating their three-point shooting is effective for them. This is one of the Suns' biggest weapons, and as long as they aren't taking bad shots or forcing the three when they have higher-percentage shots available to them, I see it as a big positive.
JC: That's an interesting question. On the surface it seems that since they are getting 1.1 points per shot from three then they should let them fly, but what are the long term effects? Does the entire team just start settling for, or myopically focusing on, three point attempts? A team needs a certain level of versatility. If we become overly predictable, it seems teams would be able to stable down a one trick pony. If the Suns strategy of relying on so many threes is a viable route, shouldn't other teams with better shooters be able to implement it more effectively? Why not just build a roster with the 15 best three point shooters in the league, irrespective of their additional skill sets? There needs to be a balance, but I'm not sure what exactly that is or whether the Suns may have even already found it...
JP: The three-ball is definitely not a novelty. The Suns' rotation basically consists of two ball handlers, a big and a bunch of spot-up shooters. Therefore, the three is going to have to be a big part of their game (what a difference a couple months makes, eh?). However, I think they can get too caught up in jacking threes up in times. The team's two point guards, in particular, are each taking over three 3-pointers per game, and neither one is shooting over 32 percent. These two need to realize when the shot is falling and when it's not. The Suns are currently sixth in makes and fourth in attempts yet only 13th in percentage, and a lot of that comes from Dragic and Bledsoe. Oddly enough, the Suns are actually fifth in 2-point percentage yet they are bottom five in attempts. The three-ball is a big part of what these Suns do, but I would like to see them be a bit smarter about the shots they are taking and not rely on it quite as much.
DK: A team like this one has to live on the three, so yes it's a good thing. I wrote last week about this team's affinity for the three being higher than any Suns team in recent memory, yet the Suns are still a distant second to the Rockets in that regard. Taking lots of threes the way the Suns are taking them is a good thing. Most are open. It's a good scheme that should continue all year long.
5. Shot Distribution: The Suns are falling in love with the three-point shot (429 attempts, 3rd in the NBA), but they are one of the better mid-range shooting teams (49.2%) in the league. They have to do more of that, right?
SS: Nope. If they shoot more mid-range shots, that percentage will most likely fall. I'd bet good money that they shoot that high of a mark from mid-range primarily because this offense tends to limit mid-range shoots compared to most other teams (and has a great mid-range shooter in Goran Dragic). You take what the defense gives you - if that means an open mid-range shot, so be it. But I don't think that's something the team needs to try and do more of.
JC: It's not always that simple. Not all shots are created equally. I mostly want the team taking quality shots rather than just shots at a specific location on the court. A wide open 18 foot jump shot in rhythm is better than a contorted, contested three point heave... or even an open 22 foot jump shot for that matter. Not every possession will result in a layup or corner three, but the goal should be to eliminate bad shots like the toe on the line three pointer... Not to mention that the little step away mid range jumper is Goran's bread and butter (except that I just mentioned it).
JP: Read what Dave said below me. Then pretend I said it instead.
DK: No, they don't. Just because you make mid-range shots doesn't mean you should take more of them. The distribution is just right. Take enough to keep the other team honest, but otherwise it's a bad shot.
KH: The Indiana Pacers are an NBA Championship contenders because they execute two things better than any other team in the league. They play great team defense and blister teams from the mid-range. Obviously there is a talent gap between the Pacers and Suns, but with the Suns shooters, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Goran Dragic, and Eric Bledsoe, the mid-range shot can be a threat that sets up the three (that they already love) and open more opportunities in the paint.
Bonus: Goran Dragic has been playing the best basketball of his career numbers wise as of late. In his last six games 20.8 PPG 9.7 APG and shooting 52.0% from the field; no other point guard in the league is doing that. So, is this his team again?
SS: I've gone back and forth with this myself. I asked the same question in the latest player of the week article, and there's simply no way to know yet. If you asked me who's team t was 10 games ago I would have said Bledsoe, but now I'm not so sure. Dragic may not be ready to step down from his throne atop Mount Orange just yet. I do think either he or Bledsoe will eventually emerge as "the guy", but they will have to stop trading injuries and play together for a longer duration of time before we will know for sure.
JC: The fact that this question continues to be asked ad nauseam suggests to me that it is nobody's... Which isn't necessarily a problem on a rebuilding team. It will work its way out organically at one point or another, even if it's not this season and the player isn't on this team.
JP: I've maintained that Dragic is the team's best player from the beginning, and my stance hasn't changed. Don't limit it to just the last six games; over the 10 games he has both started and finished (take away the four games he left early with the injuries or came off the bench), Dragic has averaged 21.1 points on 50.3 percent shooting with 9.0 assists and 3.0 turnovers per game. I'd say that's pretty darn good.
DK: For now. The team will yo-yo between Bledsoe and Dragic having great stretches of games, and that's a good thing. Let's give them time to mesh and see how it shakes out by the end of the season. It's good for Goran that, with some attention elsewhere, he gets more open looks and an offense designed to make him and Bledsoe look good. If both can keep up the elbow jumpers all season, they will be even more dangerous (much like Russell Westbrook got more dangerous when he could make an elbow jumper).
KH: Back-and-forth and forth-and-back with this, right? Lets make this very simple; The team belongs to the best player on the team. Right now that is Dragic, for a stretch it was Bledsoe, and once upon a time it was Markieff. So there is that...
SJ: I said this last time this question was asked: it's both Dragic and Bledsoe's team. They're clearly the best players on this team. We unfortunately haven't gotten to see as much of them together as we had hoped, but we appear to be reaching that point of full health for both (knock on wood). Much noise was made this offseason about the dual-PG system the Suns would run, and rightfully so - this is the Dragon & Bled-show.
Bright Siders, what do you think?
The Phoenix Suns appeared to be a team in transition, ready to play anyone and everyone in order to find "keepers" for the next great Suns team. Yet, a month into the season, coach Hornacek is playing a tight 8-man rotation loaded with league veterans.
Throughout the preseason, Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek played at least 14 guys every night. A rotation so deep was untenable during the regular season. But after years of watching Alvin Gentry and Lindsey Hunter play at least a 10-man rotation on a regular basis, the Suns seemed destined to ride the rotational turnstile yet again.
Still, the question was a good one. How deep would the rotation be, once the season started?
"Eight or nine guys would be ideal," coach Hornacek said before the season. "But with this team, where we are, that's probably not possible."
Hornacek was referring a rebuilding squad that would try to incorporate young players with a handful of veterans in a hodge-podge season sure to produce a lot more losses than wins. Throughout the preseason, the Suns had 17 players on it's active roster if you included rehabbing Malcolm Lee.
Certainly, there had to be some give. It helped when the Suns traded four players (Marcin Gortat, Shannon Brown, Malcolm Lee, Kendall Marshall) for none (injured Emeka Okafor and a future first round pick), but that still left 13 playable guys on the roster.
The 13 players did not include any All-Stars, no one who demanded minutes over every other player on the roster. We all knew Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic would play a lot, but who else would get 30+ minutes a night?
Looked like a deep rotation was in the offing.
Yet, a month into the season, one thing has become clear: these Phoenix Suns are running with a veteran 8-man rotation.
We haven't seen an 8-man rotation in these here parts since the mid-2000s "Dantonis" graced the court.
But here we are. Eight guys average 22+ minutes, while no one else gets more than 12. Some of that limitation on the rotation has to do with Alex Len's lingering injury. Yet, I don't see where Len will get big minutes when he's healthy. Channing Frye is rounding into form and Miles Plumlee is earning his minutes as well. That's your center rotation at the moment, and for the foreseeable future.
Another mitigating factor is the play of Gerald Green. The 6'8" long-distance shooting Green has been playing like the perfect compliment to Dragic and Bledsoe. In fact, he's giving the Suns most of what they hope Archie Goodwin can someday produce. Goodwin's ceiling is higher on defense and scoring, but he's only 19 and is just not yet earning minutes over Green.
And frankly, the only reason Ish Smith and Goodwin even get 23 minutes a game between them is due to injuries to Dragic and Bledsoe. I expect the 8-man rotation to become even more pronounced as those players stay healthy.
There will always be 9 or 10 men in the box score each night, but it sure appears that only 8 of them will get long, consistent minutes.
And the ones getting long minutes are the veterans. While Hornacek instills his imprint on the team, he's using his veterans to set the tone. Of the top 6 minute-getters, 4 of them are 27 or older (Dragic, Tucker, Green and Frye).
One wonders if the rotation will be as tight or as veteran when spring rolls around, but for now you're looking at the best players playing the most minutes every night. Something Jared Dudley wished for last year, but didn't get.