Time: 6 p.m. MST TV: FSAZ/NBATV The phrase must-win has become rather trite in professional sports because its usage is often applied regardless of the situation. With that said, that is essentially...

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The Phoenix Suns are already in their playoffs, trying to keep pace in the midst of a grueling schedule. Tonight, they face the 2nd-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder while trying to rise from 9th in the West.

After holding a 17-point lead against the 3rd-seed Clippers before losing on Wednesday, and then rolling over the 5th-seeded Trail Blazers on Friday, the gauntlet continues with hosting the 2nd-seeded Thunder tonight at US Airways Center in downtown Phoenix.

Overall, the Suns have lost 2 of 3 since a 6-game winning streak and now sit at 9th in the Western Conference standings with only 6 games to play. They are tied, but lose the tiebreaker, with Memphis and are half-game behind 7th-seeded Dallas who have a couple of cream puffs on their schedule this week.

The Suns cannot afford to waste an opportunity at home against the Thunder, with only one more home game left on the docket after this (Memphis, to whom the Suns have lost all three previous games) versus road games against two winning teams (Mavericks, Spurs) and two losing teams (Pelicans, Kings).

It's a gauntlet for sure.

The Suns have not helped themselves with egregious losses to the lowly Lakers last week and lowly Cavaliers two weeks before that. But overall, the Suns have won 9 of 12 since Eric Bledsoe re-entered the starting lineup and are 17-0 this season when Bledsoe and Dragic each score 16+ points.

The Opponent - The Thunder

Since losing to Phoenix and the LA Lakers in consecutive games a couple of weeks ago, the Thunder have won 7 of their last 8 games with Russell Westbrook starting at point guard. Westbrook has been resting on the second night of back-to-backs, including their loss to Houston on Friday, so he is well-rested for tonight's game in Phoenix.

When the two teams last played, the Thunder's biggest problem was their inability to stop other teams from scoring. In those last 8 Westbrook games, they have kept their opponents under 100 points 5 times. Progress.

Kevin Durant has now reached 40 consecutive games with scoring 25+ points. One more will set an all-time high in the NBA, eclipsing Michael Jordan. In the past ten games, Durant has poured in 33.7 points a game, with 7.2 rebounds and team-leading 6.0 assists.

Right behind him on assists are the point-guard tandem of Russell Westbrook (5.7) and Reggie Jackson (5.6) over the last 10 games. Westbrook and Jackson are putting up Bledsoe-type numbers recently - both exceeding 15 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists. Westbrook does it on 26 minutes a game, while Jackson plays 34.

Caron Butler (29 minutes per game over last 10) has been a big help since being acquired at the trade deadline, as 21-year old Jeremy Lamb (15 minutes per game over last 10) fades to the end of the bench behind Roberson, Jackson/Westbrook and 92-year old Derek Fisher (22 mins per game over last 10) as Thabo Sefolosha rehabs from an injury.

The Thunder have resorted to a ton of small-ball lineups lately. The only big man averaging more than 18 minutes per game in the 10 games has been PF Serge Ibaka. Adams (16), Collison (18) and Thabeet (8) play sparingly.

The Suns

By comparison, the Suns will look normal-sized. The Thunder's Durant (6'11" shooter) and Ibaka (6'10' shotblocker) are often the tallest in their lineup.

The Suns have to play every game like a play-in game and cannot afford any more letups. But can they actually stay consistent over the last six games, four of which are against teams equal to or better than them?

We've talked often about how the Suns don't have anyone in their lineup who played a major role on a playoff team before. Dragic, Bledsoe and Frye have tasted that pressure, but weren't counted on to deliver as the primary scorer in any of those games.

We won't know if the Suns have "grown up" until it's already happened. Let's hope it happened against Portland on Friday, when they overcame a 10-point deficit to close the game on a 55-22 scoring margin, because we know now that it hadn't happened as of last Sunday's Laker game.

Coach Hornacek has commented periodically this season that (unnamed) players on the team get tired and can't play 40+ minutes of inspired ball like Chris Paul or Kevin Durant can for their teams.

Dragic leads the team with 34.9 minutes per game, which ranks only 33rd in the league. Second in minutes per game is Eric Bledsoe at 32.8, ranking 59th. No other Phoenix Suns player ranks higher than 94th (P.J. Tucker, 30.7).

Those aren't terrible numbers, but it's clear Hornacek feels he has to coach around fatigue and make sure he's rotating in fresh bodies no matter the score. Bledsoe lacked energy against the LA teams, but returned with a vengeance against Portland (career high 30 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists), while Dragic has flipped his shooting numbers recently (missing most of his field goals attempts, but making most of his free throws).

Ish Smith is the primary backup to Dragic/Bledsoe but has been hot and cold over the past week. He was absolutely embarrassed by Darren Collison on Wednesday night, but helped change the game in the Suns favor on Friday in Portland.

The Suns need all three players to play their best basketball to beat the Thunder.

The Stats

Screen_shot_2014-04-06_at_6

The Lineups

Screen_shot_2014-04-06_at_6

With Sefolosha out, the Thunder first turned to Jeremy Lamb but have since turned to Andre Roberson and Derek Fisher to rotate in around Westbrook, Jackson and Durant. The Thunder don't need a scorer around those players - they need a smart veteran who will defend the other team's medium sized wing player and set up on the weak side for spot-up shots.

Key Match-Up

Last time these teams played, the Suns won behind the hot hand of Gerald Green (career high 41 points), supplemented by Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris (39, 9 and 5 between them) and point guard Goran Dragic (22, 4).

Eric Bledsoe did not play in that game, and Russell Westbrook was held to 30 minutes despite being a hot, hot shooter (36 points on 13-22 shooting).

Definitely, the matchup to watch is Bledsoe vs. Westbrook. Can the Suns win this matchup tonight? If so, that will go a long way to deciding this game.

You could also go with a matchup of shooters - Durant vs. Green. Last game, Green outscored Durant 41 to 34. But if you're hanging your hat on this happening again, you probably should move your hat.

The Prediction

This does look like a game that will be dominated by small-ball lineups where the Morrii, Green, Dragic and Bledsoe will likely get the lion's share of minutes. You'll see a lot of Thunder lineups with Durant and Ibaka playing the 4/5, with Westbrook, Butler and Jackson/Fisher on the wings.

While it seems obvious that this game will be a high-scoring affair, something tells me it won't approach the 128-122 totals (in regulation!) of the game a couple of weeks ago.

The Suns defense has improved since Eric Bledsoe returned, and the Thunder's defense has improved with Westbrook in there.

Look for the Suns to play inspired, helter-skelter all night - much like Friday's game in Portland. Sometimes that will work, and sometimes it will look ugly.

But the home crowd should help the Suns rise above the Thunder in this one. Cross your fingers, toes, arms and legs on that, okay?

Ok, so this was not a great week for the playoff-chasing Phoenix Suns. First there was a terrible loss against a flat-out bad Lakers team, followed by a heart-breaking loss against the Clippers after holding a 17-point lead in the 3rd quarter. However, the Suns stepped up just in time to get a quality win on the Road against a very tough Portland team. Who deserves to be named the Suns player of the week?

The NBA is all about which player and team can rule the court in the most epic fashion and Bright Side of the Sun has teamed up with Crown Royal to rank the best of the best Phoenix Suns players each and every week. Which player(s) ruled the court this week? #ReignOn

Runners Up:

Eric Bledsoe

Weekly Stat Averages:

Minutes: 32 Points: 18.0 FG%: 44% 3FG%: 21% Rebounds: 4.0 Assists: 3.3

Bledsoe was hot and cold this week. He started off with a horrific game against the Lakers, in which he shot only 1-9 from the field and looked out of sync. Then, he got into early foul trouble that may have stifled what looked to be a big game in the making from him against the Clippers.

However, he finally got it all to click against the Blazers, scoring 30 points in a must-win situation. He absolutley took over in the 4th quarter showing aggression and determination. Although he only scored nine baskets from the field, he made his way to the foul line frequently where he converted 11-13. He also played good perimeter defense, helping to make plays of both ends of the court. This made a huge difference for the Suns down the stretch.

This wasn't one of Bledsoe's better weeks overall, but his performance against the Blazers shows just how valuable he is to this team, and how much better the Suns are when he is engaged and contributing on both ends of the floor.


Goran Dragic

Weekly Stat Averages:

Minutes: 39 Points: 17.0 FG%: 31% 3FG%: 21% Rebounds: 2.0 Assists: 4.7

If you didn't notice, Dragic has been in a bit of a shooting slump over the last week. His uncharacteristic 31% field goal percentage and awful three-point shooting has been one of the reasons the Suns have been struggling.

Still, he has found ways to contribute by attacking the defense and getting to the line frequently, where he converted 18/21 on the week. This just goes to show that even when Dragic is struggling in one area, he still makes positive contributions in other areas.

There's no doubt the Suns need Dragic's efficient scoring from the field to be successful, and I wouldn't count on this slump to continue much longer. Dragic has been one of the top scoring, most efficient guards in the entire league this season. The Suns will need him to return to form in these last six games of the season in order to make the playoffs.



Player of the Week:

Gerald Green

Weekly Stat Averages:

Minutes: 28 Points: 23 FG%: 49% 3FG%: 41% Rebounds: 4.3 Assists: 1.3

Gerald green had another one of those games against Portland. Not only did he make the ESPN top-10 highlights once again for his dunk-contest-esque off the backboard dunk, but he once again helped pull the Suns out from the ashes in the 3rd quarter, and light the fire that would eventually carry them to victory.

Even though Green averaged less minutes than both Bledsoe and Dragic this week, he was the leading scorer on the team, and also the most efficient as well. Although Green has been moved back to the bench with the return of Bledsoe, he is still making a huge impact for the Suns and proving to be one of the biggest difference makers on the team.

Although Bledsoe's play in the 4th quarter helped ensure a Suns win against Portland, it was Green who turned things around with his hot shooting in the second half when things were starting to look bleak. Green gets my vote for the player of the week for helping the Suns pull out a critical win and keep themselves in playoff contention.

Who do you think deserves to be named the Suns player of the week? Vote in the poll below and explain in the comments!

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Poll
Who deserves to be named the Suns' player of the week?

  279 votes | Results

Ain't no quit in the Phoenix Suns quite yet.

You know, for about 10 minutes today I tried to make my entire intro President Whitmore's speech from Independence Day (you know the speech).  While it certainly wouldn't have been the clunkiest thing I'd ever written I didn't feel clever enough to pull it off so I passed.

Anyway - the general idea is that for a period last night it looked like the Suns would go quietly into the night perhaps that they would go down without a fight - but they had to live on, they had to survive. You get the point so lets unite in our common interest to watch the Phoenix Suns push for the playoffs.

Friday April 4th Key Western Conference Results:

Phoenix Suns 109 Portland Trail Blazers 93 (Recap) - Much like the Clippers game on Wednesday night the 4th quarter made all the difference when the Suns visited Portland.  Fortunately the Suns were on the right side of things this time.  Our purple good guys trailed by 1 entering the 4th quarter and then Gerald Green did this:

Maybe it made a difference in momentum and maybe it didn't but from the point Green threw the ball towards the rim on the Suns went on a 30-13 run.

Those were two of Gerald Green's 32 points while Eric Bledsoe added a career high 30 (but if you ask this guy he's the worst).  Playing Portland is the best.

Memphis Grizzlies 100 Denver Nuggets 92 (Recap) - For a while it actually looked like the Nuggets were going to pull the road upset as they led the cuddly bears by 7 in the middle of the third quarter.  Then Memphis remembered they were a lot better than Denver and scored a lot more points than their opponent (that one qualifies for #analysis).  Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph all went over 20 points in the winning effort.   Memphis hasn't lost at home since February 5th.

Dallas Mavericks 107 Los Angeles Lakers 95 (Recap) - Dallas took care of business against the Lakers in a game that basically makes me even more mad that the Suns lost to these guys on Sunday.  The Lakers held a 78-77 lead with 47 seconds left in the 3rd quarter but a 14-0 run from the Mavs effectively ended the competitive portion of the showdown.  Dirk Nowitzki was his typically awesome self - scoring 27 points on 11/14 shooting.  Vince Carter was 0/8 and didn't score in his 16 minutes - which is a fact that warms my icy heart.  Steve Nash dished out 7 assists in 19 minutes of play in what he claims was his last game of 2013-14.  Ideally he remains with the Lakers next season and finishes his career in a suit - yeah that's harsh but I want a lottery pick from them.

Golden State Warriors 102 Sacramento Kings 69 (Recap) -  Isn't the fact that the Kings scored 69 points enough?  Bogut and Lee sat again for the Warriors while the Kings were just horrible in every way.  The Full Squad is still just two games shy of falling out of the playoffs all together but their remaining schedule of v. Jazz, v. Nuggets, @Lakers, @Blazers, v. Minnesota, @Denver is not daunting.  

Current Western Conference Standings:

TEAM W L PCT GB L10 STREAK
1.San Antonio
59 17 .776 - 9-1 LOST 1
2. Oklahoma City
55 20 .743 3.5
7-3 LOST 1
3. LA Clippers
54 23 .701 5.5 7-3 LOST 1
4. Houston 50 25 .667 8.5 6-4 WON 1
5. Portland
49 28 .636 10.5 6-4 LOST 1
6. Golden State
47 29 .618 12 6-4 WON 1
7. Dallas
46 31 .597 13.5 6-4 WON 2
8. Memphis
45 31 .592 14
6-4 WON 1
- SUNS
45 31 .592 14 7-3 WON 1

Saturday April 5th Western Conference Games of Significance:

None.  There aren't any.  Go see a movie or something - Captain America 2 was a good time.

On a team with the least playoff experience, by far, among of the Western Conference hopefuls, P.J. Tucker knows he has to bring his toughness and heart every night for the Suns to qualify for the playoffs.

The Phoenix Suns have exceeded expectations this season and with six games left they are locked in a mortal battle for their playoff lives with Dallas and Memphis for those last two playoff spots.

Among the three teams, the Suns have by far the least playoff experience and the toughest remaining schedule. Collectively, they don't yet know just how hard it is to make the playoffs and win once you get there. Twice in the past three weeks, the Suns have fallen to a much lesser opponent (Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Lakers).

Even in this playoff push where the Suns have won 9 of their last 12 games, they can shake their heads in dismay at all three of those losses as signs of an experienced team giving away a win. Especially the last two.

"That was probably one of their worst games of their year," coach Hornacek said of the lack of effort shown against the Lakers last Sunday night. "They got a little confident winning those six games in a row and they thought they were just going to show up and beat [LA] and it doesn't work that way."

Then on Wednesday night, the Suns grabbed a 17-point lead late in the third quarter but allowed the Clippers - 3rd seed in the West - to rip off a 38-17 closing run to end the game and drop the Suns to 9th in the standings. The run began with a Clippers second unit that went on a 10-0 run to cut the deficit and allow Doc Rivers to bring back his starters to close out the game.

"It’s like a broken record," Hornacek said. "We tell them all the time, we can’t have a two to three minute lull against these top teams.”

That's inexperience. Maybe the Suns learned their lesson. On Friday night, they flipped the script against 5th-place Portland, ending the game on a 52-22 run.

While Tucker wasn't a big part of the game-ending run, his presence all season long has helped put the Suns 14 games over .500. Hornacek played three point guards a lot, and Gerald Green got hot for 32 points.

But they will need Tucker again if they're going to finish ahead of either Dallas or Memphis. None of these Suns has been been a starter on an NBA playoff team. But Tucker has twice been a league MVP and led his team to championships overseas. Most recently, Tucker led Brose Baskets (Germany) to their league title in 2012, just before joining the Suns for their summer league.

"I was the big offseason acquisition," he told me at practice earlier this season. "We had expectations there to win the championship. I was the focus of the team, but at the same time I did all those little things to help win more games than we would have."

Since returning to the NBA, P.J. Tucker has found a way to earn his coach's trust three times over. Alvin Gentry, Lindsey Hunter and now Jeff Hornacek - all with different expectations on them - have turned to Tucker to give him big minutes. Tucker is second on the team in minutes played this season (would be third, but for Bledsoe's injury) and never seems to run out of energy. The same cannot be said for the other guys on the team.

Hornacek lamented his inability to leave his best players on the court for 40 minutes a night like other teams can.

"They’re not able to play the 40 minutes like some of these other guys," Hornacek said after the Clipper loss, of regressing to one-on-one play when they get tired. "But it looked like Chris Paul had all the energy in the world at the end of the game. Maybe that’s our fault for not getting them in better shape.”

For his part, Tucker just wants to win games any way he can. He's not the most talented, or physically gifted, or tallest player on the court. But he's got heart.

"We just need to win games," he said after losing to Cleveland. "We need to win."

Grabbing those boards

Among small forwards this season*, P.J. Tucker is #1 in offensive rebound rate and #2 in total rebound rate. The only small forward with better rebounding numbers is Carmelo Anthony.

*Basketball-reference.com does not filter for small forwards, so I defined it as players 6'5" - 6-8" who have taken at least 150 three-pointers this season (2 per game). The results are still dirty, because you have to ignore guys like Paul Millsap and Thad Young who normally play other positions. And, they don't include SFs who are taller, like some kid named Kevin Durant. But still, it's a frame of reference.

Since the All-Star Break, P.J. Tucker leads the Suns in defensive rebounds per game (5.3, just ahead of Markieff Morris' 5.0) and is second in offensive rebounds per game (2.0, behind Plumlee's 2.5).

Just watching Tucker makes it clear how he is the best rebounder in the league under 6'6". While other players are inconsistent with their effort and arm extension in traffic, Tucker gets both arms outstretched to their maximum length and grabs that ball with authority even with other players draped all over him.

Team rebounding

The Tucker surge is not due to attrition around him. As a team, the Suns are 13th on defensive rebounds per game, 9th in offensive rebounds per game and 11th in total rebounds since the All-Star break. Yes, that's correct. You read it right. The Suns are a quality rebounding team since the break.

The team as a whole has improved one of their worst areas on defense, despite their leading rebounder (Plumlee) seeing a drop from 28 minutes per game in December to 20 minutes per game since the break.

As a team, the Suns remain middle of the pack defensively since the break, even with that horrible stretch at the end of February of allowing 50%+ shooting several games in a row.

Shotmaking and defense

Of course, rebounding is not the only way to quantify the value of a small forward. In a Suns offense designed to attack the defense with penetrating guards who kick out to three-point shooters, the small forward must possess the following qualities:

  • Space the floor by making three pointers (Tucker makes 39.1%)
  • Play defense (Tucker is team's best defender)
  • Rebound the misses on offense (Tucker is #1 in offensive rebound rate among SFs)

Tucker has turned himself into a very good corner three-point shooter this season.

Tucker-heat-chart_medium

*courtesy of basketball-reference.com

He knows where he can be effective and he stays there. Yes, we've seen him take too many interior shots, forgetting that he's only 6'5", but Tucker knows how to convert more than a player of his size should be able to convert.

Tucker-percentages-by-distance_medium

Best of all, Tucker gets better at finishing his shots in the fourth quarter than in any other quarter. He's a money-time player.

Tucker-percentages-by-quarter_medium

Of course, the Suns could do better. They could have a guy who is a bigger part of the offense. Tucker is 74th on that b-ref list in offensive usage rate among "small forwards". He can't pass well, and whenever he dribbles the ball it's an adventure.

Carmelo Anthony is clearly the best of this mold of player, but he makes north of $20 million a year.

Take a look at the list of small forwards out there on the link. Among the good rebounding SFs who make a high percentage of their three-pointers and can defend the other team's best big wing player, you see names like Carmelo Anthony, Kawhi Leonard, Lance Stephenson, LeBron James, Nicolas Batum and Paul George.

The other guys on the list fit the mold but come up short in one or more areas: Mike Scott doesn't make many threes. Neither does Thaddeus Young. Mirza Teletovic, Jordan Hamilton and Dorrell Wright can't defend as well as P.J.

Trevor Ariza is probably the best example of a better version of Tucker, and he made $7.7 million this season.

Hayward

If you look hard enough, you'll see offseason darling Gordon Hayward way down this list. He is 25th in total rebound percentage (30% less than Tucker) and makes only 31% of his three pointers.

He passes very well (24.4% assist rate would be third on Suns by wide range) and handles the ball well, and maybe you bank on Hayward's higher three-point % in prior seasons (47%, 35%, 41%) and discount the rebounding issue as a byproduct of playing on a good rebounding team.

But is Hayward worth a big enough restricted free agent offer to pull him from the Jazz? Hayward is a restricted free agent, meaning the Jazz can match any free agent offer. There's no way the Jazz match a reasonable offer, so the only way any team pries Hayward away is to offer him a lot more money than he's worth right now, banking on him improving by leaps and bounds in a different environment.

Jeff Hornacek was his shooting coach in Utah when Hayward was a good three-point shooter, and we have all seen this season how Hornacek puts every player in position to succeed.

Still, that's a gamble to pay any free agent based on future potential rather than current production.

Stephenson

The Suns best possible target, in terms of talent, productivity and likelihood, would be Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson.

Stephenson, 23, defends very well, rebounds very well, and makes enough threes to keep teams honest. In addition, he passes well (as good as Hayward) and handles well enough to run the offense as a change of pace.

In the Suns offense, he would play small forward just like P.J. Tucker (both are 6'5") in the mold of Dan Majerle back in the late 80s around Hornacek and Kevin Johnson. The Suns offense would improve, and the defense would potentially improve as well.

The downside is that Stephenson is a wildcard who had red flags coming out of college and is seen as someone who fits best on a veteran team with leaders who can keep him on the straight and narrow.

Stephenson is an unrestricted free agent, meaning that the Pacers cannot just match any offer this summer to keep him. But the Pacers can still offer larger raises and one more year (five years vs. four). For a player of Stephenson's age and talent, the fifth year would be an easy decision.

The Suns would have enough salary cap space to make Stephenson an offer of any size (he can make up to nearly $14 million in his first year), but like other teams can only offer four seasons.

But even then, is Lance Stephenson a better bargain at, say, $10-12 million per year than P.J. Tucker at $2-5 million per year?

In the NBA, talent wins out. Stephenson would make the Suns a very dangerous opponent to any team in the NBA on both ends of the floor.

Back to the present

The Phoenix Suns are in the playoff picture this year in part because of the intensity and effort of P.J. Tucker. On a team whose veteran leaders are quiet (Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Channing Frye), Tucker has stepped up this season to be the voice of effort and hustle in the locker room and on the floor.

The coach and players all point to Tucker as their vocal leader and their bellwether of effort. He doesn't have the greatest offensive skillset. Rather he maximizes his talent more than most players in the NBA can do.

Seeing how hard he works has helped other players tap further into their own talents.

P.J. Tucker will cash in this summer. The question is whether the Suns will pay him, roll the dice to find a cheap replacement, or pay someone else more money to be an even bigger factor on the team.

But if those other avenues are murky, or the Suns spend their money elsewhere, they can do a lot worse than P.J. Tucker next season at $3-5 million per year.

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