Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers.
The Suns had a season-high 21 big turnovers (Jared Dudley had SIX of them) that allowed the Jazz to take control of the game despite running even on rebounds and shooting percentage.
Alvin Gentry said before the game that they needed to limit turnovers because those really killed the Suns, and that the Jazz would try to pound the ball inside.
Well the Jazz pounded it inside, and the Suns decided to commit a season high in turnovers. Guess that means you don't win game #2,000 right?
After the Suns came out smoking hot with 78% shooting in the first quarter, the Suns shot terribly the rest of the game and lost more and more energy as the minutes passed.
By the end, the Jazz didn't even need to play their best 5 guys to extend the lead. Paul Millsap dominated the game on both ends, and Al Jefferson made a ton o shots in the second half. They didn't even have to play those guys together all the time once they built a double digit lead in the third on a flurry of good possessions (and Suns turnovers).
Goran Dragic had 17 and 6, while Marcin Gortat had 18 and 10 with 3 blocks. But that didn't matter. Energy and execution mattered.
The first half was a tutorial on smart vs. not-smart basketball, put on by Alvin Gentry's rotation choices. In the first quarter, he put in his smartest players and they shot 78% on the way to a 6-point lead. At least the offense worked.
Then in the second quarter, Gentry put in the not-smartest basketball players and they did not do well as a unit. The second unit scored only five points on two field goals in more than seven minutes of play. Gentry even called timeouts but nothing helped. Even returning the starters only got them 4 more points the rest of the way.
Oh yeah, and all the while the Jazz just pounded the ball inside to the tune of 31 attempts in the paint for 32 of their 42 first half points.
The third quarter started off well with a Dudley jumper, but the Jazz heated up while the Suns began turning the ball over, and it was quickly an 13-point Jazz lead.
And there's the double-digit deficit! Phew. I thought we might go a game without one.
Gentry had a different sub rotation in the second half, bringing in a couple guys before the end of the quarter. But by then the Suns were playing so bad they made Alec Burks look good for a drive (before he missed two free throws without the Suns' help).
By the end of the third, it was a 9-point Jazz lead. Only Jared Dudley did well in that quarter with 9 points on 7 shots. The rest of the team only scored 13 points on 16 shots.
The Suns were getting beaten to every single loose ball, not even finishing the steal on deflections or blocks.
In the fourth, Millsap just owned Morris, spinning off Morris multiple ways to get free for layups. Morris also ignored Dragic on several possessions after rebounding a Jazz miss, instead giving the ball to Dudley or Brown who ran the offense after that.
The game was never close again.
The Phoenix Suns are looking for their 2,000th win as a franchise tonight.
And as long as the Suns win another game sometime in the next FOUR SEASONS, only three other franchises will have needed fewer games to reach that 2,000-win mark (Celtics, Lakers, 76ers).
But it's not all roses. The fourth-winningest franchise is NBA history - 55% winning percentage as a franchise - is on track for their third straight losing season.
The Jazz are stuck between "win now" mode with C Al Jefferson and PF Paul Millsap and "win later" mode with their talented backups Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. For the last 1.5 seasons, it's been "win now" at the expense of player development, as Big Al and Millsap have gotten the bulk of the minutes. But that has only made the Jazz a fringey playoff team with no chance to contend.
Sound familiar? The Suns, for now, are still trying to win games with veterans like Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola along the front line this season and Steve Nash and Grant Hill on the perimeter a year ago. The Suns' success rate has been slightly worse than the Jazz, but only by a fraction.
Both teams are struggling of late. The Suns have lost 13 of 18 games, while the Jazz have lost 8 of their last 11. Neither team is in playoff position, were the season to end today.
At what point do you punt the season? That decision likely comes sometime in the next three weeks, but not quite yet. The season is still early and tickets must be sold.
Both team can win at home. The Jazz are 10-4 at home (vs. 6-13 on the road), while the Suns are 10-7 at home (vs. 2-13 on the road).
The Suns have the upper hand tonight.
Contributing to the recent Jazz swoon is the loss of starting PG Mo Williams for several weeks. Williams provides 12.9 points and 6.7 assists per game, setting up the Jazz offense that features a lot of points in the paint.
In his place, the once-banished Jamal Tinsley has contributed 7 points and 6.6 assists in 9 starts (29.6 minutes per game) this season. Yet that doesn't mean the Suns can relax. Far from it. Tinsley was the key to the Jazz win over the Suns early this season. He started and dished 14 assists (vs. 0 points) in the 94-81 Jazz win, one of four games this year that Tinsley has dished 11+ assists.
Goran Dragic has had an up and down season, as described today by our own Jacob Padilla. If he plays well, the Suns play well. But in the two Jazz games, Dragic was helped or hurt by his starting mates more than anything he did. In the early loss to the Jazz, Dragic had 13 points and 6 assists but the Suns were -20 on the scoreboard in the minutes he took the floor. In the Suns December win, Dragic was a +22 with 17 points and 5 assists.
More specifics on those mates in a minute.
Tinsley was one of the first to bring out The Dragon in the young Slovenian point guard. When Dragic was a timid young player (dubbed worst player in the NBA by ESPN's John Hollinger), Tinsley once dribbled the ball between Goran's legs on his way to the basket. Quite embarrassing. But instead of retreating further into his shell, the Dragon arrived. Dragic did the exact same thing back to Tinsley on the other end of the court, dribbling between Tinsley's legs on a drive to the hole. To my knowledge, I've never seen Dragic dribble the ball between anyone else's legs since.
That act of retaliation - along with trying to block Rose's breakaway jam and re-stealing balls that had been taken from him - were the first signs of a long NBA career that was iffy until 2010.
Another interesting matchup occurs on the front line. In the Jazz win, Luis Scola got the bulk of the PF minutes next to Marcin Gortat. He scored points, but appeared overmatched against the Jazz duo of Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors' athleticism.
When the second game began in the same way (with Scola looking slow compared to the Jazz), Gentry benched Scola. Markieff Morris and Michael Beasley shared most of the PF minutes and contributed a solid game against Millsap and Favors by playing smaller and quicker.
With Scola on a scoring rampage once again (three straight 20+ point outings), it will be interesting to see how long the leash before Gentry goes with what won the last game at Scola's expense.
It appears that Marcin Gortat's psyche is directly correlated with how he fares against Al Jefferson and the athletic bigs around Big Al.
"Utah is my little nightmare," he says.
Gortat was horrendous in a late-season, playoff-deciding matchup last spring and again this fall after playing well up that point in each case. But against the Jazz in April and November (and the start of the December game), he made only 2 of 17 shots with at least 8 of them blocked over 2+ games.
But Gortat seemed to re-awaken in the December game after going through a terrible slump leading up to it. He came with good energy and ended up with 12 points and 14 rebounds in the Suns win.
Before the early loss to Utah this season, Gortat pumped in 15 points, 11 rebounds per game and led the league in blocks. And since that December win, he is averaging a double-double again with 12 points, 10 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game.
But those 17 games between the early Utah loss and the later win were very forgettable. Gortat's contributions dropped across the board. He was a non-factor for nearly a month, losing time to the venerable Jermaine O'Neal and complaining to the Polish media between games. In that stretch, he provided only 10 points, 8 rebounds and 1 block per game (only three double-doubles in 17 games).
Which Marcin Gortat will show up tonight? The double-double machine who provides solid defense on big Al Jefferson? Or the timid shooter who gets everything blocked back in his face?
It's all about energy and attitude.
Which Marcin Gortat shows up tonight will likely influence the outcome of the game more than anything else.
Goran Dragic was the Suns' biggest free agent acquisition this year, and expectations were high for the former Sun who returned to the Valley. Further complicating matters was the fact that he was replacing a franchise legend and the man he backed up for the first two-and-a-half years of his career in Steve Nash.
Before returning to Phoenix, Dragic took over the starting point guard gig in Houston and exploded in the final two months of the season, almost dragging a depleted Rockets roster into the playoffs. Dragic put up 18 points and 8.4 assists per game on excellent shooting percentages, and Suns fans believed that was the guy they were going to get in Phoenix.
Through 31 games this year, that hasn't been the case. Well, partly anyway.
Dragic is averaging 14.5 points, 6.5 assists in 32.4 minutes per game while shooting 45 percent from the field, 34.4 percent from downtown and 70.5 percent from the charity stripe. Per 36 that is 16.1 points and 7.2 assists, which isn't too shabby. In fact, according to NBA Geek, not only is Dragic playing above average for a point guard, his numbers per 48 are almost identical to what he did in Houston last year, and are actually better in a couple statistical categories (turnovers especially).
The problem is, Dragic is coming off of a pretty poor month, particularly by the standards he's established for himself above. Take a look at his November and December splits below.
|November (16 Games)||December (13 Games)|
|Points Per Game||15.6||12.5|
|Assists Per Game||6.6||6.3|
|Rebounds Per Game||2.9||2.7|
|Steals Per Game||1.9||1.0|
|Field Goal Attempts||11.3||10.8|
|Field Goal Percentage||48.1||41.1|
|3-Point Field Goal Attempts||4.4||3.3|
|3-Point Field Goal Percentage||39.4||28.9|
|Free Throw Attempts||3.9||3.8|
|Free Throw Percentage||74.6||66.0|
|Minutes Per Game||31.6||32.3|
Dragic's numbers fell across the board despite him actually playing slightly more. He played sick for part of the month I believe and was maybe a little banged up, but that happens to everyone and as a starting point guard he has to be able to play through those games and still help his team win. He didn't do much of that last month. The Sun opened December having lost two games already, and expanded that losing streak to six by losing their first four games of the month. Dragic put it together and led the Suns on a four game winning streak, but then fell off again and the Suns closed 2012 on a six-game losing streak.
The Suns snapped that streak by beating the 76ers in their first game of the new year, and Dragic was terrific with 20 points on 7-13 shooting, six assists with only one turnover and four rebounds. Let's hope that's a sign of things to come this month.
In fact, in his preview for that game against Philadelphia, Kris Habbas dropped a couple nuggets regarding Dragic and his impact on the Suns' success.
That has been part of the theme this season with opposing team's point guards. From a defensive standpoint the team upgraded (at least athletically) at the point guard position with Goran Dragic, but he has struggled to control opposing point guards. On the season he is +2 in points, +9 in assists, +12 in steals, and -12 in turnovers. It has been a dead heat all season for Dragic, but the elite lead guards have been outplaying him consistently.
Ten games this year Dragic has outplayed his counterpart in terms of production and the team is 4-6 overall in those games. When he is not playing at a high level and winning the point guard battle the team has struggled. In games where he is simply playing to a draw the team is 5-5 and in games where he is being outplayed the team is 2-8 so far. Another barometer of the team and how they are playing this season. When Dragic stirs the drink, it goes down smooth.
The emphasis above is mine, and I couldn't agree with that point more.
Delving a bit deeper, Dragic is a completely different player in Phoenix's wins than he is in losses.
|Wins (12)||Losses (19)|
|Points Per Game||17.5||12.5|
|Assists Per Game||7.4||5.9|
|Rebounds Per Game||2.8||3.1|
|Steals Per Game||1.5||1.6|
|Field Goal Attempts||11.8||10.8|
|Field Goal Percentage||50.4||41.3|
|3-Point Field Goal Attempts||4.3||3.9|
|3-Point Field Goal Percentage||43.1||28.4|
|Free Throw Attempts||5.2||3.7|
|Free Throw Percentage||74.2||67.1|
|Minutes Per Game||33.6||31.6|
That's a pretty big disparity I'd say.
The first thing that jumps out to me is his numbers in the Suns' wins. They look pretty darn close to the numbers he put up as a starter in Houston. Winning stat-lines include 15 points and 10 assists against Detroit, 26-4 against Cleveland, 21-7 against Denver and 21-11 against Charlotte. That's the guy the Suns need. When he shows up, they win more often than not.
In the losses column, the thing that sticks out to me is his shooting percentages. He simply couldn't hit a shot, and it brought down his entire game. When he can't hit a shot, he disappears. Dragic has had five games this season scoring less than 10 points with all five coming in December and four of the five coming in a loss.
Dragic needs to bust out of his December slump (perhaps he already has; we'll see against Utah). I don't really care how he does it, but it has to happen. The Dragon needs to breathe fire again, and for that to happen shots need to fall. Whether it's a matter of getting extra shots up in practice, taking better shots in games or getting to the rack and free throw line more often (four free throws per game for someone with his ability to drive just isn't enough), I don't know.
However, he's not going to shoot well in every game. He needs to be able to shake his struggles off and still help his team win. If he allows his missed shots to completely take him out of the game like he has at times this year, he's never going to be any more than an average player and okay starter.
Goran Dragic isn't a superstar, or even an All-Star at this point. But he's the only star the Suns have, and if Phoenix hopes to win games he is going to have to elevate his game and play with more consistency. At least until the front office can get him some more help.