The Suns have their best first half record since 2010 and project to make the playoffs with a 46-36 record. But can a woefully inexperienced team withstand the pressure of a playoff run?

At (just over) the halfway point of the season, it is time to asses where the 24-18 Suns stand and ways in which they can reasonably improve, given the roster at hand.

Defensive improvements

If the Suns are going to make the playoffs, it will be on the back of their defense.

For the first time since the mid-2000s, the Phoenix Suns boast an above-average defense (12th in points-allowed-per-possession) at the halfway point with an aggressive style that denies the clean shot at the expense of positioning for rebounds. In contrast, Minnesota would rather give you an open shot so they can position for the rebound. Both philosophies work, as long as you have the players to execute it.

The Timberwolves are allowing the highest field goal percentage in the league (47.1%) over the first half of the season, while the Suns are 13th in that area (45%). Yet Minnesota is 8th in rebound rate while the Suns are 18th. Overall, Minnesota and Phoenix's defensive efficiency is virtually the same (102.5 vs. 102.6) despite the disparity in style.

Let's play a Mad Lib...

The Suns defense is allowing ______ over the season's first half since the first half of ________

  • lowest defensive field goal % (45.0%) allowed since 2004-05 when they blasted the competition, making teams on a nightly basis look as helpless as the Pacers did on Wednesday night.
  • lowest 3-pt % (33.5%) allowed since 2002-03
  • lowest FG% at the rim (56.4%) allowed since 1999-00
  • lowest opponent rebound rate (50.9% of all available rebounds, offensive and defensive) since 2009-10
  • fewest points allowed per possession (102.6) since 2003-04*

*Many of you fondly recall the Suns great defensive start in 2005-06 with Kurt Thomas anchoring it before going down in late January with a foot injury, but this D is slightly more effective.

Overall, the Suns boast their best defense at the halfway mark since before Steve Nash led the resurgence. That defense is helping the Suns to a winning record for the first time since 2010, and their best 42-game mark since 2007-08.

Projecting the rest of the season

But it's not how you start, it's how you finish. Under head coach Alvin Gentry, the Phoenix Suns generally played better in the second half than they did in the first half. But he did that with offensive improvements more than defensive. In fact, only in 2009-10 did the Suns defense improve in the second half of the season.

I'm not sure you can look at past Suns teams to make a projection. The coach is different. The players are different. The scheme is different. But it's pretty clear that, despite the onslaught against Indiana, this team is going to have to play strong defense to make the playoffs.

Assuming their stats hold true for the rest of the reason (8th in offense, 12th in defense), with the only variable being the schedule, two major outlets predict the Suns to make the playoffs using advanced statistical magic. projects the Suns to go 22-18 despite playing a much tougher second-half schedule, for an overall 46-36 record based on 5,000 simulations. The Suns % chance to make the playoffs is 74.2%. does a similar projection with slightly different inputs, and also sees the Suns with a 46-36 record when it's all said and done. They give the Suns a 63.1% chance of making the playoffs.

These projections change on a daily basis depending on unexpected outcomes. When the Suns beat Indiana on Wednesday, both models bumped the Suns to a 47-win projection with higher playoff odds. And then when the Suns lost to Washington the projections "righted" themselves. The Suns had been expected to go 1-1 in those two games, and that's just what happened.

Will the Suns improve or regress?

Those models assume status quo for each team for the rest of the season, with the only differences being toughness of schedule. The Suns second-half schedule is a bit tougher than the first half, so their overall winning percentage goes down slightly.

All else is projected equal though. Dragic must continue to play like an All-Star. Eric Bledsoe must play about half the games (or equivalent production from someone else). The Suns D must be above average. The Suns O must be pretty good.

But how do we know that?

Short answer: we don't. We don't know anything. The coach is a rookie. The players are inexperienced. The team's second-best player is a question mark for the rest of the season.

Individually, the Suns lack experience. Very few players on the roster have experience at all, let alone in the midst of a playoff run.

Only four players on the roster have more than three years of NBA experience. Let's review their playing history to get a gauge on their likelihood to stand up to the pressure.

  • Gerald Green, in 6 NBA seasons, has played big second-half minutes only three times in his career, all for losers (Boston pre-Garnett, Nets pre-Deron). He has never played a big role on a playoff contender. Ever.
  • Channing Frye, in 7 NBA seasons, starts for the Suns but has never been a starter on a playoff team. When he did start for a good team (2010-11, 2011-12), he got injured and the Suns came up short. On the good side, Channing has been quite consistent before/after the all-star break. He likely won't drop off in production.
  • Leandro Barbosa, in 9 NBA seasons, most recently played a significant bench role for Indiana in 2011-12 and he's been a key contributor off the bench for seven playoff runs (6 with Phoenix, 1 with Indiana). His before/after stats for his career have shown consistent production no matter the time of year.
  • Goran Dragic, in 5 NBA seasons, is one player who has always improved in the season's second half, but other than last year it's because his minutes have increased. 2012-13 is the only season in which he played starters minutes before AND after the break. He improved dramatically in the second half, but that was for a losing team. Dragic has never been a starter on a playoff team, but he's led late-season charges twice in a starting role (2010-11 and 2011-12 in Houston) as the best player on the 9th-place team.

That's four players on the entire 13-man roster with any significant NBA experience.

Only three of them have experience on an NBA playoff team.

And not one of them has started an NBA playoff game.

Silver linings

While the Suns are short of NBA playoff experience, they do have players with international success under pressure.

  • Goran Dragic led Slovenia in Eurobasket the last several years, and was named to the All-Tournament team in Euroboasket 2013 as one of the two best guards in the entire tourney (along with Tony Parker).
  • P.J. Tucker had several successful Euro campaigns, including 2007-08 where he led Halpoel to the league championship and won the MVP, and in 2012 when he led Bramburg to the BBL championship and won the MVP.

The great unknown

The Suns are venturing into uncharted waters as a team. Good teams get better as the season wears on, while bad teams get worse. Intensity picks up. Every game matters more. The standings change every night.

While P.J. Tucker and Goran Dragic have proven themselves on the world stage, neither has done it under the NBA playoff lights. Every player on the Suns is playing a bigger role than they've ever played.

Whatever happens in the second half, folks, will be a surprise. To all of us, including the team itself.

The Phoenix Suns just couldn't grab their defensive rebounds, and that's a death knell for this team. The Wizards cleaned up the glass then made big shots to win at the end.

The big question of the night was whether the Suns could follow up a dominant performance against the league's elite with a strong effort against a middle-of-the-road team.

"It's easier to say," coach Hornacek said before the game, "than it is to actually do that."

The Suns came out scoring well, but didn't bring their big-boy pants for defense by giving up 30 in the first quarter (a 120-point rate) to a normally plodding team (18th in pace) that scores only 98.8 points per game.

Scoring slowed down but so did the Suns heart rate, to the point where they gave up the ball way too many times (18 by the end of the third) and gave up too many offensive boards (15 to the Wiz by early 4th vs. on 19 of their own defensive boards).

Somehow though, the Suns found themselves within inches (a Dragic fast break miss) of tying the game with 6 minutes left.

And then within a couple feet of taking a lead (Tucker fouled on FB, but missed free throws).

And then the Wizards hit big shots.


First quarter

The game started off as a contest of the centers. Washington ran a lot of offense through Marcin Gortat while the Suns seemed to want to find Miles Plumlee. On the defensive end, both centers were tested early on drives.

In the first six minutes, Gortat had 2 points, 1 rebound, 2 blocks and a turnover. Plumlee had 4 points, 1 rebound and a block. But they touched the ball on nearly every possession.

Channing Frye and Nene had a contrast of styles, with Frye hitting four 3s in the opening minutes off pick and pops while Nene had several scores in the paint. Nene had no interest coming out on Frye to the three-point line.

The game started to become a seesaw battle of threes, with Washington making their first three 3s while the Suns made 5 of 8 overall.

The Wizards stayed hot from the perimeter all quarter, leading 30-29 at the end of one. Game seems familiar... when have I seen this before... Suns giving up lots of points at home... oh yeah, the LAST time the Suns wore those orange shirzees (gave up 110 to Dallas in a loss a week ago).

Suns down 29-30 after one

Second quarter

Markieff Morris started out hot, getting the Suns first 7 points of the second Q, but then he had a couple of bad possessions trying to post up from too far out.

Nene enjoyed himself more in the second quarter, as Markieff was much more willing to post up than Frye. Still, the Suns took a lead on overall better play than the Wizards ragtag second unit. If you want to know why the Wizards are just 20-21, look no further than this Wiz second unit (even with a couple starters in there).

When the Wizards starters came back in though, they went on a run to take the lead back. The Suns couldn't keep a handle on the ball while the Wiz got all the shots they wanted in a nice run (including 6 straight points by Gortat) to take a 48-47 lead with 2:46 left.

The Wizards were able to stay close with the Suns in this half with very active transition D along with good offensive rebounding. But the transition D failed the Wiz in the final seconds of the half as the Suns scored on three consecutive fast breaks to take a 6 point lead into halftime.

Suns lead 57-51 at half despite shooting 59% vs. the Wizards 48%. Suns will have to buckle down on D to win this game.

Third Quarter

The Suns started out the second half as if the game had already ended. Lazy cross-court passes and poor defense led to the Wizards taking a lead by mid-quarter, opening on a 17-6 run.

The Wizards took the Suns out of their easy offense by switching a small forward, like Ariza, onto Frye to protect Nene and Gortat in the pick-and-pop. The Suns didn't make them pay though by getting the ball to a faster guy on the wing against a center. Green and Tucker just weren't providing the necessary juice.

Trevor Ariza was really making his presence felt in the second half deflecting and denying passes to disrupt the Suns passing game. John Wall was doing the same with his length, while Nene and Gortat manned the paint.

Again I say, this game reminds me of last Friday in these orange shirseys. How many more Friday home games this season? Sheesh.

After only committing 11.5 turnovers per game this month, the Suns had 11 at halftime and 7 more in the third quarter alone. Holy Schnykees!

The third quarter couldn't end fast enough, yet there was a Suns foul just before the buzzer to give Gortat two more free throws before the clock turned zero.

Suns down 76-82 after a 31-19 Wizards quarter. The Wiz' Trevor Ariza has 21 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 4 steals. After three.

Fourth Quarter

The fourth started okay, with a Markieff Morris three point play. But that was it, really.

The Suns just could not pull down rebounds. At the nine minute mark, the Suns had only pulled down 19 of 34 available defensive boards. They had 19, while the Wizards grabbed 15 of their own misses. That's barely more than half, folks. League average is 75%.

No wonder it was an 8 point Wizards lead with 9 minutes left. If the Suns could just stop turning the ball over and start getting defensive boards - ie. wake up - maybe this could be a game.

Sure enough, the Wizards let off the gas a bit and the Suns went on a 6-0 run to pull within 2 while Wall and Ariza rested.

The Suns almost tied the game on a Dragic one-man fast break, but he missed a contested layup and no other Suns ran down the court to clean the glass. Nene put the lead back at 4 on the next possession.

Later, the Suns had a chance to take the lead on an open three by Green, but he missed. The Wizards got two more offensive rebounds on the next possession, drew a foul and pulled back to a 4-point lead.

Then the Suns tied it and had a chance to take the lead on fast break, but Tucker (who got the steal) didn't pass to an open Dragic, instead drawing the foul. He missed the free throws, of course. That's karma calling you out for not passing to an open guy. Beal made a three on the other end.


Dragic got the Suns to two on a pretty between-the-legs pass to Plumlee, but then Beal hit a short jumper on the other end. Four points again.

The Phoenix Suns try to complete their homestand with a 4-1 record tonight against the Washington Wizards (20-21). If the Suns win tonight, their 25-17 record would match their most games over .500 since 2010.

Over the past nine days, four former Suns (three from last season alone) have brought new teams into US Airways Center. Tonight, it is Marcin Gortat's turn to try to beat the Suns as a starter for a new team - the Washington Wizards.

The opponent

Homecoming week continues. Last game, it was Luis Scola returning to the valley after a forgettable year got him traded to the best team in the league. Last week, it was Kendall Marshall leading the Lakers into town. And then Shawn Marion came in with the Mavericks.

Now former Suns center Marcin Gortat returns to US Airways Center for a taste of Orange Crush. I know, that's not a regular nickname but it fits after the Pacers game, and the Suns are wearing those orange jerseys again tonight (reportedly). So, Orange Crush is the nickname of the day.

Anyhoo, back to the Polish Gazelle. His production for the Wizards is almost identical to last year. He plays 2 more minutes per game for Washington (32) than last season, and puts up 12 points and just under 9 rebounds in those minutes. Defensively, he's done well defending the rim (though not as well as Plumlee), surrendering 50% field goal shooting, which is better than league average in that area.

The Wizards best player, of course, is John Wall. Wall's shooting percentages are low (42% from the field, 31% on threes), but he scores at will. He takes nearly 6 free throws a game and total 20 points and 8.5 assists in 37 minutes a night. And Wall is still just 23 years old.

The Wizards second best player is 20-year old Bradley Beal, who makes 43% of his threes and scores 17 points a game. Factor in Nene, a resurgent Trevor Ariza and the Hammer, and you'd think the Wizards are pretty darn good.

Except, they're just barely okay. Their bench is awful, and their offensive schemes leave a lot to be desired.

"I don't like the position I play," Gortat said after scoring just six points on 3-of-10 shooting in the Wizards' 113-96 loss on Saturday at Verizon Center. "I'm constantly drifting more and more away from the basket. That's not my game. I'm capable of making one or two plays like that away from the basket, but I feel more comfortable underneath the basket."

Nearly 37 percent (84 of 228) of Gortat's shots this season have come outside the paint, which is much higher than his previous two seasons in Phoenix.

"I just think I have to talk to Coach and clear things up and make sure we are on the same page," Gortat said.

Where have we heard this stuff before, calling out the scheme to the media?

The Suns

Let's stay with the Gortat theme. This and later quotes from the Washington Post today:

Even as Gortat makes his return to US Airways Center on Friday, the Suns continue to appease the scruffy-bearded, 6-foot-11 big man from Poland. The Suns had scheduled a Polish heritage night for their first home game, but Gortat was already elsewhere for the festivities. Phoenix will honor the tickets of fans who paid to see Gortat play by allowing them to use those tickets to see the Wizards.

Good for the Suns, honoring those tickets. And, while it seems crass, good for the Suns to pull the trigger on a necessary trade despite having spent time and effort to set up that Polish Heritage night in the first place.

Gortat is certainly grateful for the kindness but he is also a competitor, so he has no plans of going over to the weight room to hang out with his old teammates, coaches and trainers. He expects to sit in that visitors' locker room with his Wizards teammates, focusing on what he most wants during his reunion.

"I just want to beat them. Quite honestly, I just want to beat them bad," Gortat said with a laugh, before explaining himself. "No hard feelings. I was never mad at these guys when I was leaving. It's part of the game."

This one I highly, highly doubt. Gortat won't be able to contain himself this afternoon. He's just too gregarious, and too good at laughing himself off. So while he talks a good "mean guy" game, I fully expect to see him ambling down the hallway when reporters are on the loose, cracking jokes and making fun of himself and others in a light-hearted way. That's just Marcin's style.

After spending a few months working with new Coach Jeff Hornacek and observing first-year General Manager Ryan McDonough, Gortat said he isn't completely shocked by the Suns' run.

"I'm not. They have a very good coaching staff, a very good GM, they have a few young players, rising stars," he said. "They have a great system. They have a great defensive coordinator. They're young, they just enjoy playing."


"There will be some emotions, for sure. I will have some emotions. I've been there for three years and I ain't going to lie," Gortat said.

The stats


The lineups


The key matchup

While the real key to the game is Goran Dragic and Gerald Green against John Wall and Bradley Beal, it's more fun to talk about something else.

How about the matchup of the new center Miles Plumlee (and rookie Alex Len) vs. their old center Marcin Gortat. Now that's funner.

Marcin Gortat would love nothing better than to score 20 points and pull down 20 rebounds tonight, to lead his team to victory over the franchise that traded him away. Miles Plumlee and Alex Len, who won the "fight for bread and water" in September, would like nothing more than to outplay Gortat in their first matchup since the trade.

The prediction

Marcin has promised to play great against former teams/opponents before, but has not consistently delivered. Yet the tipping point on this game is how great John Wall plays vs. the Suns guards. If Wall dominates and the the Wizards supporting cast supports him, then the Wizards can win.

Most likely, though, the Suns win this game by 10+ points.

Rookie Archie Goodwin needs some playing time, so he's going to Cali to get it. In other news, another McDonough brother has risen up the ranks of Valley pro team.

The Phoenix Suns have assigned rookie Archie Goodwin to the D-League Bakersfield Jam for the weekend. He will only miss the Suns game tonight, against Washington, and will meet his big-boy team for the road trip that starts in Cleveland.

Per Paul Coro of, it's just a weekend jaunt to shake off the rust and get some playing time.

The league's second youngest player, Archie Goodwin, has recently lost his spot in the rotation to 10-year veteran Leandro Barbosa as the Phoenix Suns go on a playoff run. He's played only sparingly and doesn't appear to have big role for the rest of the season, barring injuries.

What better to do with a 19 year old kid than send him to play in the developmental league for a couple of games this weekend?

Well, something better might be to send him off for more than just a couple of games. Goodwin needs to play somewhere. As the season rolls along, the team has fewer and fewer practices in lieu of recovery time between games.

But the Suns have never been big on the D-League, hardly using it over the past several years when the same situation occurred where a rookie wasn't playing much. Two games here, five games there.

The Celtics never used the D-League much either, when current Suns GM Ryan McDonough was in their front office.

Many feel that the best experience for a young guy is to practice with his team, build relationships there, and see how a real NBA team runs. If you go to the D-League, you're just playing in a different environment under different rules and it's simply a chance to get your legs again.

McDonoughs taking over

When Ryan McDonough took over the Suns last summer, he was able to bring along some family. His brother Terry, an NFL front office guy, got a job as a scout for the Cardinals at the same time.

Now, Terry has been promoted to Vice President of Player Personnel for the Cardinals.

If the valley is going to make it's mark on the nation in the next few years, it will be thanks to the Boston-bred McDonough brothers.

Now all we need is for brother Sean, a play-by-play announcer for college football, to get a gig in the area.

Father Wil, since passed away, would be proud as will be Valley residents when both McDonough teams make the playoffs in 2014 (one can hope, right?).

The Pacers are the best team in the NBA. The Phoenix Suns are just days away from tanking their season after the loss of Eric Bledsoe. Of course, the Suns proceed to absolutely obliterate the Pacers on ESPN to improve to 24-17 on the season.

The game started on the right note, with the Pacers for some reason deciding to play at the Suns free-flowing pace. The Pacers kept up for a while, but then the Suns began to pull away and held a 13-point lead at halftime.

That 13-point lead became a 17-point lead at the end of three.

Then a 26-point lead six minutes later, at 99-73 with 6:06 left in the game.

Then Indiana coach Frank Vogel waved the white flag and pulled his starters for basically the first time in the second half. To be clear, it was the Pacers starting unit, not their backups, that got blasted in this game.

For the second straight game, the Suns annihilated a winning opponent's starting unit in the 4th quarter WITH THEIR SECOND UNIT. Suns starters didn't even have to return in either game.

  • Gerald Green had 18 first half points, 23 for the game.
  • Goran Dragic finished with 21 points and 4 assists in 22 minutes.
  • Markieff Morris had 20 points off the bench.

First half

The Suns started hot form the tip, making their first four shots on exactly what they wanted. Two threes, a short runner from Goran Dragic and a oop from former Pacers Gerald Green to Miles Plumlee on the fast break.

The Pacers kept pace by making a number of midrange shots, or as head coach Frank Vogel puts it, low OERs. He dropped OER in the pregame press conference, which is short for Offensive Efficiency Rating. Who says coaches can't use advanced stats? Two of the best on the court right now.

The Pacers offense is not very imaginative. Post up (West), take a midrange shot, go for offensive rebound.

Within 6 minutes, the Pacers had a 19-17 lead. That's a 152-136 pace. Something tells me this won't continue.

And, it didn't. Shots started missing from both sides, turnovers increased and the Suns went on a 9-4 run to take a 3-point lead with 3 minutes left in the first. The pace of the game is still fast, fast, fast. Just as the Suns like it. When will Pacers go back to their winning formula? The Pacers were only within 3 points because of 4 offensive rebounds (to the Suns 0) creating second chances.

Still, the quarter ended with 59 points scored. Not at the Pacers preferred pace. Roy Hibbert played the entire first 12 minutes, as did Paul George (except for a few seconds). The Suns whole-quarter counterparts were P.J. Tucker and Miles Plumlee (minus a few seconds).

The most entertaining part of the last few minutes of the quarter was Leandro Barbosa going right at Roy Hibbert three times in two possessions. He scored once, got blocked (out of bounds) once and overshot the last one. LB and Hibbert shared a joke after each one. Barbosa played for the Pacers in 2012.

End of one: 30-29 Suns.

The Suns opened the second period on a 12-2 run to open up an 11 point lead, but then got careless with the ball and couldn't get any more separation from the Indiana second unit.

The crowd turned quickly on Luis Scola, by the way. After a tepid cheer when he checked in, the crowd started to boo him after a few "Scola" plays. I can see why the fans booed him. As an opponent, he's very frustrating.

Gerald Green came out on fire in this game and kept it up in the second quarter: 18 points in the first 20 minutes of play, along with 4 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal.

When the Suns lead got to 13 with Gerald Green's 17th and 18th points on a fast break dunk, the Pacers started to lose their cool. Lance Stephenson committed an offensive foul, and then Roy Hibbert drew a tech.

David West returned from an early wrist injury after scoring 8 quick points in the first to settle his team down. They went to him in the post three straight times, with him missing once and drawing fouls on the next two and then missing again. Gerald Green, though, proceeded to jack up two even-lower-OERs-than-usual and the Pacers had a chance to right their ship.

But Hornacek called a timeout to bring the starters back (along with meep-meep for Green) and opened up the lead even further on several great plays by Dragic, Barbosa and Plumlee.

End of half: Suns lead 62-49.

Halftime stats/notes:

  • Gerald Green 18 and 5 (versus Paul George's 14 and 4)
  • Miles Plumlee 7 and 5 (versus Hibbert's 6 and 4)
  • Luis Scola with 3 points
  • Suns shooting 55% to Pacers 48%. More aggressive than Pacers, taking the shots they want almost every time.

Which Pacer team will show in the second half? The one who thought they could hang with the Suns pace, but couldn't? Or the ones who can dictate pace with their plodding offense and stifling defense?

We shall see.

Second half

And, the second half started like the first half ended. So much for that Pacer haymaker, or sleeping aid. Suns started the quarter on a 10-2 run to take a 21 point lead before the first timeout was called.

Go Suns!

The Suns lead got all the way to 24 halfway through the Q before Indiana made a few shots (gasp, attempts inside 15 feet!) and pulled to within 18 before Hornacek called his own timeout.

At this point, the Pacers decided to get more physical on offense and defense to try to slow down the Suns. David West and George Hill drew fouls - the MO of the end of the half as well - but the Suns stayed strong and kept making shots.

Joey Crawford tried to insert himself into the nationally televised game at this point, making foul calls kinda like Leslie Nielsen playing the baseball ump in that one movie (which was it?).

George Hill became a one-man wrecking crew, drawing fouls on several possessions in a row and playing hounding defense on the other end. Goran Dragic committed his fourth foul in the process, threatening to get the Suns in trouble. Then Barbosa committed his third foul and the Suns were even more in trouble.

Ish Smith got to take a turn next on Hill. Somehow, Ish and Barbosa were able to keep the pace up and the Suns held on to a 17 point lead going into the 4th (96-79).

That's one punch the Suns survived already. Can they survive another?

Suns shooting 59% for game. 72% on threes. Against the league's BEST DEFENSE, Even if it's an off night for Pacers, isn't this something to behold?

Fourth Quarter

The Pacers started the 4th with a couple of baskets to cut the lead to 13. Paul George and Roy Hibbert started the 4th, ostensibly to see if the Pacers could make it a game.

But the Suns second unit stayed strong and built the lead quickly back to 19. If Marcus Morris would have made a wide open three, or Channing Frye had made a putback slam, the roof would have come of the building.

As it was, Markieff Morris made a three a couple possessions later to make it a 22 point game, and the Pacers called a timeout with 8:23 left.

For the second straight game, the Suns might be able to finish the entire fourth quarter with the second unit beating the tar out of a winning team's starting five.


Frank Vogel waved the white flag at 6:06 left in the game after the Suns blew out to a 26 point lead.

What was that Charles Barkley said when Eric Bledsoe went down? Oh yeah "They're done." By they, Charles meant the opposition?

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