This could be the last game for each team with their current lineup. For the Boston Celtics, that would be a welcome change but for Phoenix it would be rolling the dice on an already successful season.
On the eve of the trading deadline, two gunslingers meet up in Phoenix to try to beat each other at their own game. We are talking about the General Managers of each team - Ryan McDonough of the Phoenix Suns and Danny Ainge of the Boston Celtics - not the players on the court.
This time tomorrow, each team might look a whole lot different than they will at the opening tip at US Airways Center tonight at 7pm. The Celtics are shopping much of their starting lineup, while the Suns are looking to simply add a piece or two to the existing roster.
The Phoenix Suns, currently 6th in the West, need a win on their home court against a losing team. They need to pad their record in this home stretch before taking to the road for 14 of their last 21 games on the season. Tonight's game itself should be predictable, which probably means that it won't be. The Suns will be tired from last night's OT win and have struggled against slow-it-down teams like the Celtics.
The Celtics have been a swirl of trade rumors all season long. First, Ainge dumped two of his best players over the summer without bringing back any high-end youth (though he did get good draft picks). Now he's got a number of solid-average players who look a heck of a lot like last year's Phoenix Suns - too many role players mismatched on a ragtag roster.
To wit, the Celtics started three small forwards in their last game - Jeff Green, Gerald Wallace and Brandon Bass - while slotting a natural PF into the pivot. Rajon Rondo must have been cringing in that lineup.
But Boston has been competitive this season, if not winners on a regular basis. Rookie coach Brad Stevens has won the respect of players and peers. Now he just needs a younger roster ready to take to his teachings, like Suns coach Jeff Hornacek has done in Phoenix.
The Phoenix Suns are now 12-10 since Eric Bledsoe went down in late December - treading water and maintaining playoff position, if not improving their winning percentage or playoff chances any more than they were at 19-11 before his injury.
This is not to say the Suns, sans Bledsoe, are a poor team. It's not even to say the Suns can't win a playoff series. It's simply saying that the Suns are better with two 20-point scorers in their lineup than one. Without Bledsoe, the Suns are relying on a heavy dose of team basketball and effort along with a sprinkling of big scoring games along the lineup.
Last night, that was Gerald Green with a career-high 36 points. Green now has 15 games of 20+ points (Suns are 11-4 in those games), and is averaging 19 points and 4 rebounds in his last 10 games.
Backup power forward Markieff Morris leads the league with 7 double-doubles off the bench (including 13 and 12 last night). Kieff has 10 of his own 20+ point games.
The big kahuna has been P.J. Tucker, averaging a team-high 8.2 rebounds per game over his last 10, a necessary component for a team experiencing struggles from many of their big men lately. Miles Plumlee is putting up just 6.4 points and 8.0 rebounds per game over his last 10, while Channing Frye is proving 11.7 and 5.0. That's a minor decline for both players.
The team recently got Rajon Rondo back from a year-long injury. Rondo has not been playing like the Rajon of old, but that could happen any time against any opponent. Let's hope it's not against the Suns.
Danny Ainge vs. Ryan McDonough
With the trade deadline tomorrow, the GM who taught Ryan McDonough to be unafraid will almost certainly be in Phoenix today for the game, allowing these guys to hash out any deals in one-to-one fashion.
Ainge wants to divest his team of as many bad contracts as possible (Gerald Wallace, for one), but also has some nice pieces to trade and expiring contracts to exchange.
McDonough wants to improve a playoff team while giving up as little as possible in the process. He's armed with a huge expiring deal (Okafor) and a bevy of future #1 picks.
While players like Jeff Green and Gerald Wallace make too much money for their contributions, I would not be surprised to see two friends swap Okafor to the Celtics for someone like backup PF Kris Humphries (expiring) to provide rebounding down the stretch. Humphries is free this summer, meaning he won't impact the Suns beyond this playoff run.
Larger deals may be discussed (Rondo for one of the Suns starting PGs and picks, Green, Bass) but those are much more unlikely because they don't appreciably make the Suns better for fill a glaring need THIS season so those deals might not happen till the summer. Rondo, for example, could be acquired in a sign-and-trade of Bledsoe this summer if Boston really wants to lock in their future before waiting out Rondo's decision (expiring in 2015).
Unless Rajon Rondo returns to form and Jeff Green shows the world he's the best Green on the floor, the Celtics will have a hard time winning this game.
How much effort the Suns put out tonight will be interesting to watch. Last night, they were discombobulated and under-efforting most of the game until the end, and a back to back is always tough after an overtime win. However, this is the stretch run and every win counts so I hope Hornacek still has these guys listening.
Suns by 10.
Commenter noonoo eloquently summed up this game at halftime:
Crap on a spatula. What was that.
What that was was winning by any means necessary. I predicted in the preview that the Suns would win this one handily. How wrong could I be? As Steve Albert mentioned incessantly during the game, Denver had lost it's last 4 games by an average margin of 27.5 points. This one was in the bag!
The Denver Nuggets and maybe the altitude had other ideas about what should go in the bag and how handily it should get there. Credit P.J. Tucker, Gerald Green and Goran Dragi? for keeping the Suns in this one after a hot start chilled to nearly freezing. Green carried the offensive load with 36 huge points, while Dragi? fed the fire with 14 assists to with 21 points of his own. P.J. Tucker was simply everywhere. He dove after loose balls, grabbed big rebounds and played every minute as if someone had a gun to his family's head. His 13 points and 11 rebounds don't tell the story of his impact on the game. Markieff Morris continued his solid play versus the Nuggets with 13 points and 12 boards, including a put-back to send the game into overtime.
After Dragi? carried the team in the first half, Green did the heavy lifting in the 4th quarter and overtime, scoring 18 of his points in the final 2 stanzas. Given their foul trouble, Phoenix did a good job of playing through adversity. By the time it was all said and done, both Miles Plumlee and Markieff Morris fouled out, while Channing Frye played part of the 4th quarter and OT with 5 fouls. It was not a pretty win, but it counts just the same as the rest of them!
The game started promisingly enough for Phoenix who came out looking dialed in and primed to blow Denver off the court. Phoenix jumped out to a 10-2 lead before Denver called a timeout to regroup. It didn’t help. 3 minutes later Phoenix had extended the lead to 21-7 behind a Gerald Green putback dunk and a pair of Goran Dragic one-man-fast-breaks that ended in 4 made free throws. That was the highwater mark for the Suns. The wheels started rattling off at this point.
Coach Jeff Hornacek, perhaps thinking his team had the game well in hand brought Ish Smith in for Dragi? with 5 minutes remaining in the first quarter and both the Suns' offense and defense promptly sputtered. Denver went on a 16-6 run before back to back baskets by Leandro Barbosa and Marcus Morris slowed the bleeding and the Suns took a 31-25 lead into the second quarter.
Denver kicked off the 2nd quarter with an 8-2 run to tie the game at 33. From that point on, the game was a relatively close affair whose outcome remained in doubt until the very end. Foul trouble plagued the Suns as Denver attacked the basket repeatedly, challenging the Sun's big defense to make plays. Instead, they made fouls. By the end of the first half, Miles Plumlee had 4 fouls while Channing Frye, Gerald Green, Markieff Morris and Alex Len all collected 3 apiece. Denver shot 14 free throws to the Suns' 2 in the 2nd quarter and Phoenix went into halftime nursing a 1-point lead. It could have been worse, considering Denver shot a paltry 60% from the stripe for half. Goran Dragi? and Kenneth Faried matched each other as leading scorers for their teams with 16 points each.
The third quarter was an up and down affair. Phoenix got the lead back up to 11, only to see that margin evaporate as Denver closed the period with a 12-0 run. Evan Fournier scored 8 of those points and looked all-world, finishing the quarter with 12 points on a perfect 4-4 from the field (including 2 3-pointers) and 2-2 from the line. Nuggets led 77-76.
In the 4th quarter, it was Gerald Green's turn to score a handful of points, even if they were not in impressive fashion. Despite going 2-8 from the floor, Green pumped in 10 crucial points to keep the Suns in the game. 8 of those came in a single minute from 8:05 to 7:05 including back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Suns an 87-86 lead. It wasn't enough to keep Denver at bay. The Nuggets would keep fighting, eventually taking a 5-point lead with 50.5 seconds left in the game. Channing Frye, who struggled with foul trouble on the way to 11 points and 8 rebounds nailed a 3-pointer with 35 seconds left in regulation. After a missed Evan Fournier jumper, Phoenix called a timeout with 17.8 seconds left to gather their thoughts and draw up a game winner.
Channing Frye took a rushed 2-pointer and missed, but Marcus Morris was there for the offensive rebound to tie it up at 99 with 5.7 seconds left. Wilson Chandler got a decent look as time expired, but he missed and we were off to overtime.
OT was more GG heroics. After starting the party with a ferocious dunk, Green answered every Denver rally, and Goran Dragi? finally gave the Suns a lead they wouldn't reliquish with a fast-break dunk with 56.3 seconds left. From there, it was a free throw contest and the Suns snuck out of Denver with a hard-earned win.