Basketball, played on the same court, but with football rules becomes a dangerous little game I like to call Hard Court Rugby. This is what happened...
Some games, it is clear that the ball is slick, and teams struggle to handle the ball. Lots of turnovers and sloppy basketball is the result. Then there are games where the ball is constantly on the ground and the teams pile up for a Rugby Scrum like a scene from The Three Stooges.
Right before the half Burks caught the ball and tried a desperation heave at the buzzer from half court, like you know, in every other NBA game. Only this time he had the clever idea to shoulder tackle Goodwin then half heartily fling the ball at the rim. Tyrone Corbin earned a Technical Foul and Burks earned a stooge award for the night.
There is a fine line between confident while exceeding expectations and big timing the dregs of the league, like the Utah Jazz (3-15), which is precisely what the Phoenix Suns (9-8) did tonight. Sometimes it is tougher to get up for the lesser teams, but when you are the overachiever of the year there is no room for that.
In a home-and-home series with the Jazz the Suns took the first one, then the Jazz made a statement in the return match.
For the most part the game was dead even. When you look at the box-score it tells a very similar story. Each team was about identical in most categories from rebounding (39-35, Utah), to made field goals (39-37, Utah), to three's (12-9, Phoenix), and to total turnovers (8-12, Phoenix) which made the Jazz dominance in the second half perplexing to those that feed off box-score dumpster diving.
Dig a little deeper and the two numbers that matter the most ended up being second chance points, 25-13 Utah, and because of that; the final score 112-104, Utah.
It became a rugby match in the paint with Derrick Favors (14 points 8 rebounds), Enes Kanter (8 points 4 rebounds), and Jeremy Evans (12 points 4 rebounds) all making this game ugly inside.
The Suns were fueled by Goran Dragic monster first half (14 points 8 assists), but sputtered to the finish line as he finished with 24 points (11-13 free-throws) and 9 assists total. The team looked disjointed in the second half with a lack of effort, love of the three, and defensive miscues.
Dragic was the lone bright spot as the rest of the team managed only 8 total assists as a team and 12 free-throw attempts.
For the Jazz they got a career night from their rookie Trey Burke as he stepped up with 17 second half points (3-5 threes) on his way to a personal best 20 points.
The Jazz scored their season high in points (previous high 111 against New Orleans) and were 00.1% off their season high in field goal percentage, same game. This loss drops the Suns to 9-8 and was another wake-up call for them in terms of getting up for every opponent. They did not have the same energy that has become a staple of theirs this season tonight. Have to have that when you do not have elite level talent.
Can the Suns maintain this momentum into a three game winning streak tonight? Here are the details...
There are two occasions where the Phoenix Suns (9-7) must look at their calendars and smile, that is when they are playing either the Utah Jazz (2-15) (or the Portland Trail Blazers). This season they are a combined 4-1 against those two teams making up for 31.2% of the schedule early on.
In fact, both of those teams have had games come down to the final buzzer with game-winners. Crazy stuff.
This season the Suns (0-3) and Jazz (1-4) have not been particularly effective on the second game on a back-to-back. The Suns have lost all their games by a margin of -8.3 and the Jazz -11.8, but they won an overtime game against the Bulls by six points along the way. The Suns dropped both games of their home-and-home with the Kings this season and are looking to rectify that against the Jazz tonight by winning both.
On a back-to-back like this teams are tired, they settle for easier looks, and can come out lacking energy. That happens to everyone including the Suns. Settling for jumpers can hurt a team, but the Suns use them as a launching pad.
The Jazz are a Top 10 team defending the three-point line chasing opponents off of it, because of that they give up a lot of free-throws and looks inside, but they do a good job defending the three ball.
Against the Trail Blazers, a Top 3 defender of the three-point line, the Suns lite them up for 30 points behind the arc. They caught fire and changed the momentum of the game with the long ball. The Jazz defend the three well, but the Suns are a very opportunistic shooting team and could catch fire from there at any time with Green (11-35), Frye (12-28), Goran Dragic (6-15), and the team (37-110) in the past four games.
Look for a lot of jumpers and tired legs with the quick turnaround and flight back for both teams.
(Recent) History Lesson
87-84, Suns Win
112-101, Suns Win
In the second game of the season both Gordon Hayward and Eric Bledsoe hit go-ahead shots for their teams, but Bledsoe was the one with the ball in his hands last. That game provided an exciting finish for the shorthanded Jazz against the Suns. With this being a home-and-home the Jazz have an opportunity to get some revenge after they were dispatched rather easily last night.
Head-to-Head (past four seasons including Playoffs)
Suns: 97.4 PPG (8 wins)
Jazz: 95.4 PPG (4 wins)
Of the twelve games, seven have been decided by single-digits, and the with the familiarity, these teams normally play close games. The talent has changed over the years, but with Coach Hornacek on board and the game-winner by Bledsoe earlier this year the stakes are always high with these two teams.
Head-to-Head (This Season)
Gordon Hayward: 14.5 PPG 8.5 RPG 7.0 APG 37.0 FG% (2 games)
Eric Bledsoe: 18.5 PPG 5.5 RPG 2.5 SPG 42.3 FG% (2 games)
These two will spend very little time guarding one another outside of switches on pick-and-rolls, but they have done damage against each other in different ways. Hayward has been able to do a little bit of everything, but is struggling to score in an efficient manner against the Suns athletic wings. Bledsoe is causing havoc, creating turnovers, and overturning Hayward game-winners. Should be fun.
(Again, both players do not have contracts heading into restricted free-agency this summer)
Potential Jazz Inactives: Andris Biedrins (Left Ankle, Out)
Marvin Williams vs.The Morrii
Whether Williams is starting (like last night) or coming off the bench he will have to match the versatility of the Morris Twins at the three and the four throughout the night. In a sense Williams is the Jazz version of the Morris Twins with his ability to stretch the floor as a four and athleticism as a three on the perimeter.
Markieff will put pressure on him inside with his new-found aggressiveness and Marcus can do the same with the way he has been stretching the floor as of late. If the Morrii can maintain their efficiency tonight they should win this individual battle.
Interesting Stat: 24.0
That is the average age of the Jazz starters, which is sort of like looking through the window at what Suns fans were looking for this year from their team. Instead of forcing Archie Goodwin and Alex Len into the starting line-up the team has their best middle aged veterans out there (27.0 average age) leading to a surprising start.
Meaningless Stat: 2-15
The Jazz are 2-15, but six of their losses were by 10 points or less and they are getting their team together on the court for the first time all season. It is a little misleading, but they are still neck-and-neck with Milwaukee for the Most Likely To Loss To A D-League team this year.
Series on Suns offensive and defensive proficiency in first month of 2013-14 season
The Phoenix Suns have had great success so far this season on the defensive end, molding 10 new players into a cohesive unit that boasts a Top 10 defense. At the same time, they run a very efficient offense heavy on dunks, layups and threes.
The Suns don't give up easy shots, but they do generate easy ones on the other end.
The Suns' play this year perfectly mirrors the preseason rhetoric of the new GM, coach and defensive coordinator. When they were hired, they talked about a fast offense and stingy defense. But usually, offseason talk of shakeups and scheme changes result in more talk than action. Except this time it's actually happening.
That the Phoenix Suns are just 7-6 overall is an indictment of their late-game offensive execution in the half court and lack of a closer, yet they are one of the only teams in the league to hold a fourth quarter lead in 12 of their first 13 games.
How are the Suns doing it? With an 8th-ranked defense that defends the three-point line and rim at a high level, and an opportunistic offense that leads the league in fast-break points, is 9th in three-point attempts and 11th in three-point percentage (37.3%).
Coach Hornacek wanted the team to take more efficient shots - from the three-point line and at the rim, rather than mid range. The reason being that conversion rates are higher the closer you are to the rim, and that the higher points behind the arc makes up for that lower shooting % so far out. Everything in the middle is a waste of time.
League averages in the 2013-14 season:
Clearly, there's more value in shots at the rim or from behind the 3-point line. Hornacek had the right idea, of course. And so far, the results are very promising.
The Suns are a small team, but they have already:
"When you look at the good teams," Hornacek said over the summer, exclusively to Bright Side. "They either have the shot or they're creating something for somebody else. Consequently, they'll get more open looks which will help their percentages. I think that every guy that you saw on this team last year can have a better shooting percentage in the coming year."
Evidence of this actually happening, as shown in this chart. Of the players in Suns' regular rotation, seven of them were in the NBA last year. Only Ish Smith has seen a drop in shooting percentage.
Many of the team's close shots are thanks to the league-leading fast break scoring team that feeds on back court steals that create fast break points at the rim. Otherwise, the Suns are very pedestrian in the half-court as teams pack the paint to stop Bledsoe and Dragic and don't have a quality post-up presence down low.
Still, the coaching staff works to maximize what they have. The Suns have the league's 8th-ranked "Effective" field goal % and "True" shooting % (which give credit to 3-pointers over 2-pointers) thanks to the heaving diet of fast breaks and three-pointers.
"When we look at things now with analytics, you see that the effective field goal percentages are 51%," Hornacek said in an exclusive interview with Bright Side over the summer, in preparation for the season. "That's why a bunch of these teams are shooting a ton of threes because they get more value for their shot."
The key to this offense has been the success of the three-point shot. The point guards often drive to the hole to draw the defense, and then pass the ball back to the weak side for an open three behind the backs of the defenders. Dragic and Bledsoe are very quick and good at scoring near the rim, forcing the defense to adjust.
But all of this is moot if the guys can't make the three pointers.
This season, the "tanking" Suns have made 10+ three-pointers in each of their last five games, and made 10+ 3s seven times already in 13 games overall for a season average of 37.2% (9th overall) on 9.6 makes a game. Last year, by contrast, the Suns only made 10+ three pointers fives times all year, sinking only 32% of their tries.
But while the Suns are working toward more efficient shots, they are turning the ball over at an alarming rate which hurts their offensive results (just 17th in points per possession, which includes those that end in turnovers).
If the Suns could cut down their turnovers, their offense could be even more effective just by doing what they are already doing today.
The scheme is clearly working.
"If you don't take a good shot on offense, it's going to hurt you on defense," assistant coach and defensive coordinator Mike Longabardi said to Bright Side before the season. "Likewise, if you don't play good defense, you're going to get a worse shot on offense."
It's the defense that has carried the Suns this year, grounded in defending the three point line and the rim. The very shots that the Suns want to take are the shots the Suns want to stop the other team from taking (and making) as well.
"The team that gets the most easy shots is the one that wins," Longabardi said. "So your job on defense is to make it hard for the other team to score."
Seems elementary, right? Defend the shots you don't want them to take while leaving the bad shots open. Boston did that for the last several years, and now the Suns are doing it behind Longabardi's schemes.
Last year, however, the Suns were dead last in three point field goal defense (.388) and tied for 25th in eFG% (.512) against. They limited the opponents' three-point attempts okay (4th in league, allowing only 17.9 per game), but their poor rotations left those shots wide, wide open.
After allowing five of their first 13 opponents to shoot better than 50% in a game, this year's Suns have not allowed any of their opponents this season to exceed that mark.
Asked about the difference between last year and this year, in terms of attention to defense in practice, P.J. Tucker calls it "night and day".
These Suns are not the most talented set of players to ever wear Suns uniforms. There is not a multi-time All-Star on the roster, and their best two players have shared the court only four times in 13 games. They are inexperienced, with each man playing a bigger role than they've ever played before.
But these Suns are buying into a great scheme, orchestrated by the Suns coaching staff, and playing as hard as they can.
The results speak for themselves: top 10 defense + opportunistic, fast break offense = more success than expected.