Minnesota Timberwolves 111, Phoenix Suns 107 Remember the goodwill the Phoenix Suns temporarily built up with a four-game winning streak heading into last Friday’s showdown against the Portland...

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Back in 1979 when the NBA and ABA merged they instilled the ability to gain more points for a shot made from further out. The level of difficulty is obviously there for longer shots so naturally the extra point is earned.

The longest shot in the league and the closest shot are arguably the most important throughout a game in terms of creating momentum and ending it, which has been the root of the Phoenix Suns problems this season.

From my philosophy you take away the paint. Then you close out and contest. What has been hurting is us is that they (the three-point shots) have been so wide open and our rotations have been bad at times. Teams live and die by the three and we want to make them live in-between. -- Forward Jared Dudley on three-point shots

This season the teams that have made the three with consistency, and even more importantly, defend it with the same vigor have been successful.

Right now of the sixteen potential playoff teams (based on today's standings) there are 10 teams in the Top 15 in three-point makes, 9 in defending the three-point line, and 12 in three-point differential. The three-point line is not the defining factor in a playoff team, there are far too many intangibles that go into that formula, but it is clearly an important element in winning the game-by-game battles that lead a team to the playoffs.

Of those teams the Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, Atlanta Hawks, and Brooklyn Nets are in the Top 15 in all of those "three-point factors."

For the Suns in particular the three-point shot has been a barometer of their success. The team has won the battle beyond the arc in 12 games this season (tying three times as well) showing the importance to this team. During the seven game losing streak that was a major contributor to the lack of success.

The team is 11-18 by the way.

Numbers do not lie. The team is 18th in the league in makes (191), opponent makes (205), and differential (-14) proving that middle of the pack mentality that the Suns have adopted statistically this season.

In wins the Suns are making 2.09 more threes than their opponent per game and almost two more threes a game. On paper that is simplistic, but in wins the team is scoring 104.1 and they are scoring 93.17 per game in losses. Those missing three pointers are six points lost leading to losses rather than victories.

Wins
Suns Opponents
2 4
12 10
6 9
7 7
7 5
11 13
6 2
5 2
6 3
8 3
17 6
87 64

Made threes by the Suns and their opponents in wins

Those are fairly respectable numbers and if they can find consistency behind the arc on both ends then they can change their fortunes, but in the losses the numbers are right there to see plain as day.

Losses
Suns Opponents
5 4
5 9
7 15
4 2
6 6
5 8
5 8
4 9
6 12
6 8
8 12
6 4
8 4
9 7
5 5
5 7
3 11
8 9
105 140

Made threes by the Suns and their opponents in losses

How can that change? Rotations and fixing the ever growing issue of inconsistent defense on the perimeter are clearly the issues, but the issues seem to be different game-by-game. Some games they are over committing to the non-shooters, others they are rotating to the wrong spots on the floor, and overall they are making mental mistakes throughout the game.

We talked about that today, we need to tighten up our rotations and we got to know personnel of who we are rotating to. What we ask them to do is very, very simple. We have to make sure we execute that. We have to make sure that if I am rotating out to (Steve) Novak that I get there maybe a step and a half earlier than as opposed to a Kenneth Faried. -- Alvin Gentry on the rotations

The team is watching film and seeing different issues every game. They are the type of employees that show up late one day, then take too many breaks the next, and then give a lackluster effort on top of it. When the manager goes to assess the poor performance, what do they point out?

That is the thing we talked about in the film session. We can't come in and show the same mistakes over, and over, and over again being committed by different people. We have to show these mistakes and then next week it has to be something else that we are showing that we are trying to correct. -- Gentry on the miscues

Well Monday you were late, Wednesday you took too many breaks, and then Thursday you were not engaged leading to an overall bad week come Friday. That is the position Gentry is in right now as they constantly watch film on this and yet the results are the same. It is not always Shannon Brown, or Jared Dudley, or just one player making the mistakes, but it is someone new in a new way every game. The side screen-and-roll has been a death knell for the team.

The team is giving up 1.173 PPP (points per possession) on pick-and-roll situations in man defense. With that they are 30th in the league (that has 30 teams) and 60.1% shooting from the field. A lot of those shots are threes off of the poor rotations.

As Jay-Z so eloquently stated, "difficult takes a day, impossible takes a week." On what level is are the Suns issues then? Are they just difficult or impossible? Are they fixable in a day, a week, a season, or more?

In the past five years -- when led by Steve Nash and Channing Frye albeit, the Suns were around the top of the league in three-point differential getting teams out of their normal routine and rushing threes. Now they are on the other end of that style.

The defensive scheme may be simple, but the group is simply not getting it and because of that they are struggling to win games behind the three-point line that is becoming crucial for good teams to be great teams.

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Goran Dragic's injury has come at a bad time for those fans who want to watch the Suns win games. With Dragic at the helm, the Suns are very steady in the closing minutes and find ways to get easy scores. Without him, the Suns are just as likely to turn the ball over as they are to score. When you do that, your chances of winning go in the toilet.

In the last two games, the Suns have held a fourth quarter lead against a winning team (90-86 over Knicks, 83-81 over Pacers) only to lose.

After taking late leads at the 5:19 mark of each game, the Suns scored on only 7 of 24 possessions (5 field goals, 2 trips to the line) while committing 7 killer turnovers for an overall 29% conversion rate. Not surprisingly, they got outscored 29-15 by the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers in those closing minutes.

Compare that to a 47% conversion rate on late-game possessions in the 6 prior close games (decided by three points or less), with only 4 turnovers in 63 chances, when Dragic is at the helm and the last two games look even worse. That kind of conversion rate would have been won these games.

Let's look at the Pacers and Knicks games in more detail.

Pacers game: In the final 5:19 after taking a 2-point lead, the Suns made only 3 of 11 shots with 3 turnovers to 1 assist while the Pacers outscored the Suns 16-8 on the back of 14 free throw attempts and 0 turnovers. Sebastian Telfair, who otherwise had an excellent game, went 1-5 with a turnover while Luis Scola had 2 turnovers and committed 2 personal fouls. The Suns only attempted one shot at the rim during this run vs. 10 jumpers.

Knicks game: In the final 5:19 after taking a 4-point lead, the Suns made only 2 of 6 shots with 4 turnovers to 2 assists while the Knicks outscored the Suns 13-7 on the back of 5-for-9 shooting against only 1 turnover. Yes, this was the JR Smith game in which he made 2 tightly contested jumpers to score the Knicks last 4 points in the final 30 seconds.

Failure in late-game execution without their starting PG Goran Dragic has killed the team. Amid all the failings of the team so far this year, late-game execution has not been one of those failings. In fact, the Suns have done well at the end of games. Sure, they have missed a few gimmes in closing seconds and conversely have allowed back-breaking contested jump shots but that's it. The Suns misses were good shots while they have been killed by bad ones.

Before Dragic hurt his tailbone on a bad foul, the Suns were 3-2 in games decided by three points or less in regulation with another three going to overtime where the Suns won 1 of 3.

How was the Suns' execution in those?

  • Portland, Dec 22: In the final 6:49 after taking a 1-point lead, the Suns made 5 of 12 shots with 1 turnover to 5 assists, but Portland outscored the Suns 14-10 by making 5 of 9 shots, including both of their 3-pt attempts. Dragic missed his only two shots attempts but did have 1 assist to 0 turnovers.
  • Memphis, Dec 12: In the final 5:43 of a tie game, the Suns scored on only 3 of 9 possessions (two baskets, one trip to the line vs. 2 turnovers) but outscored Memphis 6-4 by holding them to 2 of 6 shooting with 2 turnovers of their own. Dragic made the game-winning shot, a twisting layup amongst three defenders with no time left.
  • Dallas, Dec 6: In the final 5:30 with Dallas holding an 10-point lead, the Suns scored on 11 of 16 possessions (7 baskets, 4 trips to the line vs. 1 turnover) and outscored Dallas 23-16, only to lose on Mayo's step-back contested jumpshot. Telfair and Dragic played together in those final minutes, scoring or assisting on 6 of 11 scoring trips.
  • Philadelphia, Nov 25: In the final 6:00 with Sixers holding a 7-point lead, the Suns scored on 7 of 13 possessions (6 baskets, 1 trip to the line vs. 0 turnovers) and outscored Philly 14-10. But Beasley missed a tying layup attempt in the final seconds and Philly closed out the win.
  • New Orleans, Nov 23: In the final 5:40 of regulation plus 5 minutes of OT with the Suns holding an 11-point lead, the Suns scored on only 7 of their last 19 possessions (5 baskets, 2 trips to the line vs. 0 turnovers), and were outscored by Orlando's hot shooting 23-15. Luckily, Orlando's run started with the Suns holding an 11 point lead. Dragic scored or assisted on 4 of those 7 possessions with committing any turnovers.

I could go on, but you get the gist.

The Suns have had a lot of failings and head-shaking moments. But even the darkest-hearted Suns fan has to admit that the Suns have played a lot of exciting, close games.

In close games, the Suns have been protective of the ball and pretty successful on offense in the closing minutes. Sure, the Suns don't have a "closer" but Gentry and Dragic have done a reputable job getting buckets in closing minutes without turning the ball over.

In those prior 6 close contests decided by three points or less or in overtime, the Suns scored on 33 of 69 possessions (47% conversion rate) with just a small handful of turnovers littered in those 69 possessions. The Suns won 4 of 7 tight games overall, with the three losses being those the Suns were fighting back from larger deficits only to make the game close at the end.

But in the last two games (both losses), the Suns scored on only 7 of 24 possessions (29% conversion rate) with as many turnovers as scores.

Killer.

Let's hope Goran Dragic's butt feels better tonight against Minnesota.

Another late lead thrown away. Another road game lost. The Phoenix Suns fell to the Indiana Pacers 97-91 on Friday night in a game they should have won. This season has been marked by long streaks,...

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The first unit offense came out in sync and executed well to start the game with Sebastian Telfair taking over for the Injured Goran Dragic without a hitch. Indiana quickly called a timeout with the Suns up 12-7 and then came re-energized taking advantage of sloppy play by Shannon Brown causing two quick turnovers that led to easy points at the other end of the floor, to take the lead 14-12 in just over a minute.

Gentry followed suit calling a timeout of his own and the Suns tried to regain their composure but could never quite regain the lead in the first quarter as the Pacers led 27-20 at the end of one. The Suns poor offense was exacerbated by Dudley getting two quick fouls and going to the bench after only eight minutes of play.

The Suns' second unit started the second quarter with Kendall Marshall backing up Telfair at the point. Tyler Hansbrough continued to lead the attack with hustle and scoring inside while Gerald Green showed he is more than just a dunker as he hit back to back threes. The Suns went on a mini run and the Pacers went back to their starting unit to make a run of their own to eventually extend the lead 58-44 at the end of the first half.

Jared Dudley didn't score until the second quarter and had only four points at the half. Likewise, Telfair had only six points on 2-6 shooting to go along with his three assists. The Suns couldn't find the go-to guy they so desperately needed in the first half, and their defense was also sorely lacking with poor rotations that left shooters open on the perimeter, allowing them to knock down 70% of their three point attempts.

Marcin Gortat came out strong to start the second half along with Jared Dudley who made some nice passes and a steal to cut the lead to 8 halfway through the third quarter. Sebastian Telfair and Shannon Brown also came out more aggressive providing the Suns with additional scoring threats on the outside. The Suns and Pacers battled back and forth with the Suns showing more energy and improved defense in the third quarter, and Phoenix was eventually able to cut the lead down to four at the end of the third quarter 75-71. The Suns held the Pacers to just 6 of 21 shooting in the 3rd quarter, thanks to much improved defense and hustle than they showed in the first half.

The Suns started the fourth quarter with a hybrid starter/bench unit of Sebastian Telfair, Jared Dudley, Michael Beasley, Luis Scola, and Jermaine O'Neal. Morris and Tucker came in for Scola and Dudley after about five minutes, but head coach Alvin Gentry likely didn't trust going back to a full on second unit headed by Kendall Marshall after fighting back to get the game within reach, so he chose to rest only a couple players at a time.

The Suns got within just two points of the Pacers on two consecutive possessions but Beasley missed on both trips. Finally, Telfair was able to poke the ball free and tie up the game on a fast break for the first time since the first quarter at 81-81 with just over six minutes to go in the game. Jermaine O'Neal was then sent to the line and gave the Suns their first lead since the first quarter, but the Pacers answered back with a couple of free throws on the next possession to tie the game once again.

The Suns gave it their best effort in the fourth, but ultimately it just wasn't enough. Once again, the Suns fell behind early and battled back in the second half to retake the lead, but ultimately fell short as the Pacers hung on to win in the end 97-91.

The Pacers got to the line early and often and were able to convert 17-23 from the charity stripe and also shot 50% from beyond the arc. The Pacers' best player tonight was George Hill who scored 22 points on 9-13 shooting from the field. Sebastian Telfair played a solid game for the Suns scoring 19 points on 8-20 shooting and dishing out 6 assists in over 40 minutes of play. Marcin Gortat also did his part with a double-double of 15 points,10 rebounds while holding Hibbert to only 8 points, though Hibbert did win the battle of the boards getting 14 rebounds in all.

Next game is tomorrow night in Minnesota against the Timberwolves. Hang in there Suns fans.

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