The Suns have already hung with San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Portland in narrow losses on the road this season and tonight they face another litmus test when the play the Heat in Miami. Can the Suns finally break through and win an away game against one of the elite teams in the NBA?
When: Monday November 25, 2013, 5:30 PM local time (7:30 EST)
Where: American Airlines Arena (The Triple AAA) Miami, Florida
Watch/Listen: TV: Fox Sports AZ Radio: 620 KTAR
In a game that should have nugatory impact on tonight's result, Miami beat the Suns in Phoenix 97-88 back on November 17, 2012. Yes, it's been over a calendar year since these teams have played. The Suns actually held their own in the game, and Goran Dragic pulled the team within two on a layup with 2:11 left, but the Heat ran off seven unanswered points to close things out. Chris Bosh led all players with 24 points and nine rebounds while LeBron James chipped in 21 points and seven boards. Dwyane Wade did not play in the game.
Phoenix only features three holdovers from last season's contest. Goran Dragic had 12 points and a game high eight assists, Markieff Morris scored 16 and pulled down four boards and P.J. Tucker had two points, one rebound and four fouls. Not P.J.'s best effort. Hopefully all three head into tonight's game ready to best these totals.
Points per game: 106.6 (4) Points allowed: 97.3 (8)
ORtg: 114.2 (1) DRtg: 104.2 (12)
Miami has run off six straight wins and nine out of 10 after two surprising losses to the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets. In fact, with Miami's other loss coming to Boston that makes the combined record of the teams they have lost to 14-29. They've lost those games by a combined six points. The Heat most recently faced the same Orlando Magic team the Suns dispatched last night and beat them by two points on Saturday, but this was after a 28 point romp over them three days earlier. Five of Miami's 10 victories have been by double digits.
LeBron is still the main attraction on South Beach (but for how long?) and is off to another amazing start. Although some of his numbers are actually slightly down, he is compensating for that by shooting 60% from the field and 49% from three point range in the early going. This emphasizes a team wide phenomenon, as the Heat tout 52% FG and 44% 3FG shooting heading into the game. This should provide a true test for Phoenix, who has not allowed an opponent to shoot 50% from the field this season.
The Heat also come into this game with the asset of rest, having only played once in the past five days. Conversely, the Suns are on their third game in four nights. Miami will hope they can slow down the road weary Suns, who lead the league in fast break points per game (22.2) while Miami is just 24th (10.5).
Points per game: 101.1 (14) Points allowed: 97.6 (9)
ORtg: 104.1 (15) DRtg: 101.6 (8)
The Suns 7-6 start is their best since the 2009-10 season, which was also the last time they made the playoffs. And despite the organization using very measured language in elucidating their goals for the season before it began, people are taking notice of a surprising (to most) Suns team that is turning heads with their scrappy persona. There is a palpable level of fierce competitiveness being displayed as the Suns are playing all four quarters of basketball every night and are never out of a game.
The Suns are currently 2-0 on their Eastern road trip after convincing victories over Charlotte and Orlando, helping to dispel notions that the team would flounder during the absence of starting (point?) guard Eric Bledsoe. In his absence, Dragic has risen to the occasion by averaging 19.5 points and 8.5 assists per game. He has had help from a couple teammates that have given solid contributions over the last four games. Marcus Morris has led the bench with 14 points per game, and has done so on superb 62% shooting from the field (including 55% from three). Meanwhile, Gerald Green is scoring 20 points a night while pouring in volume three point shooting at a 42% clip. Green has taken 33 three point shots the last four games and has hit at least four in a game three times.
The dominant character traits of the Suns' personality are still hustle and defense. Their impressive DRtg (8th overall) is bulwarked by holding opponents to the third lowest three point field goal % (.325) in the league. After allowing a season high 113 points to Sacramento last Wednesday the Suns have responded by holding their next two opponents under 100 points.
Perimeter D vs. Miami from three: The Suns are allowing an exiguous .325 (3) from long distance and the Heat are shooting .439 (2).
LeBron vs. Mini LeBron: Eric Bledsoe will be a game time decision as he continues to nurse a shin bruise. These teams only play twice, so it would be nice to get a look at these two on the court together. It also couldn't hurt the Suns' chances of pulling an upset and EB should have fresh legs which could help with the next thing to keep an eye on.
Rested vs. Ragged: Miami has played once since last Wednesday. The Suns are playing their third game in four nights. Will the Suns have legs to shoot well from three? Can they bring enough energy to stick with Miami for 48 minutes?
The Suns have righted the ship after a troubling four game losing streak. That losing streak isn't necessarily a reason for concern, though. Last season nine of the 16 teams that made the playoffs suffered at least a four game losing streak over the course of the season. In fact, Golden St. and the Lakers both bookended two game winning streaks with four and six losses on each side to lose 10 out of 12 games. 2-10 in a 12 game stretch. I think the Suns are capable of overcoming their four game hiccup.
A win over the defending champs would really punctuate a successful road trip, and the way things have been going it wouldn't necessarily surprise me, but the Suns are already playing with house money at this point. Miami is still the favorite here and going home after a 2-1 road trip shouldn't be any reason for the players to hang their heads. Still, a loss here with an impending matchup against the smoking hot Blazers could keep the Suns vacillating around that .500 mark. The simple way to put some distance between .500 on the good side is a big win tonight.
In an effort to promote comity between the sister sites of SB Nation the munificent Kevin Kraczkowski of Hot Hot Hoops joins us and answers my five questions about the Miami Heat.
Check out Hot Hot Hoops for all that is Miami Heat basketball and check out my responses to Kevin's five questions about the Phoenix Suns. Special thanks to Kevin for
putting up with me joining me in this endeavor.
1. What are your thoughts on the mercurial Michael Beasley? I see he leads the team in scoring per 36 minutes. Why is he not playing more minutes than LeBron considering this staggering achievement? Seriously, though, what is your take on his behavior on and off the court?
Kevin: He started the season deep in the rotation, and patiently bided his time. He scored six points in four minutes in the HEAT's fifth game this year, against the Raptors, and continued to put up a point per minute through his first few appearances. The biggest knock on his play is that he is a one trick pony: all he does is score. He's shown that he's not really very strong at passing with only four assists thus far in 117 minutes of court time, but he's started to rebound a little more: after two rebounds in his first four games he has 18 in his last four.
He only played eight minutes at home versus Orlando, but he scored nine very important points to get the HEAT back into it after being 16 down at halftime. He's a spark plug, pure and simple, and he gives the HEAT yet another weapon off an already formidable bench. Personally, I think he would do pretty well with starters minutes. He's a better all-around talent than alternate options Shane Battier, James Jones, and Rashard Lewis. All that being said, it's hard to critique the coaching staff that has represented the Eastern Conference in three straight NBA Finals.
2. The Heat are #1 in the league in ORtg and putting up some pretty ridiculous shooting numbers (.518 FG% and .439 3P%). Are they getting better looks? Are the offensive sets running more seamlessly? Have the Heat actually improved on offense or is this just a scorching stretch to start the season?
Kevin: The HEAT's three-point shooting prowess isn't an isolated incident or an illusion. There are eight players (James Jones, Beasley, Roger Mason, Mario Chalmers, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Norris Cole, and Ray Allen) who are averaging better than Miami's NBA leading .396 three-point success rate from last season. I think the HEAT are finding it easier to stretch opposing defenses because the traditional three-point shooters (Shane Battier, Allen, Chalmers) are more likely this year to drive the lane. Conversely, Chris Bosh, Norris Cole, and Mario Chalmers all trained hard this offseason on distance shooting, and are thus far reaping the rewards of a high three-point percentage. The reason everything is up is because opponents can't key on anything specific. Where does an elephant sit? Wherever he wants to.
3. Dwyane Wade turns 32 in January and there have already been some murmurs about him being on a descending career trajectory. Some of his numbers this season have dipped, including scoring (17.7 per game) which is on pace to be the lowest output since his rookie season. How does he look? Is he more of the same old Dwyane Wade or just old Dwyane Wade?
Kevin: I've answered some permutation of this question on every "five questions" article thus far. It seems the writing is on the wall for old man Wade. It's true that his knees are not what they used to be, and he will henceforth sit out the second game of back-to-back games against other than elite opponents to keep him fresh for the stretch run. He has sat out a total of 39 regular season games since the dawning of the "Big Three" era, but the HEAT are 31-8 in those games.
Also consider the 67 playoff games the HEAT have played in in that span (66 of which Wade started). That all adds up to Wade appearing in 92 games per 82 game season (accounting for the 66 game lockout-shortened season) over three-plus years. Again, he's not going to eat up 40 minutes per game anymore, but he can still drive, sink daggers late, and play above the rim when he needs to. So, yes, Wade is older, but coach Erik Spoelstra is managing him (and his knees) with an eye on the three-peat.
4. The Eastern Conference is apparently a two team race. Any thoughts on why the East is so terrible? If Miami and Indiana played a seven game series right now who do you think would win? What about in the Eastern Conference Finals?
Kevin: I have no idea, but it has been substandard to the Western Conference for years and it has only become more pronounced this season. If the season ended today, there would be three sub-.500 teams from the East in the picture, while the West would have three teams at .500 or better (including the Suns) who would miss it. That hardly seems fair, right? I don't know how it happened, and I have no idea how the powers-that-be are going to fix it.
The Pacers are really strong, and the HEAT as they stand have no answer for the NBA's leading shot blocker, Roy Hibbert. If they played a seven game series today, I think the Pacers would really give Miami a lot of problems. Although it would be close, I think the home court clinching team would come out on top, and as it stands, the Pacers are the home court clinching team.
For the third part of your question, you have to understand that the HEAT signed giant question mark Greg Oden and HIS knees for the veteran's minimum during the offseason. Oden is going to be called on soon to sub in for Miami from eight to 10 minutes per game. Charles Barkley said it best earlier this season - Oden was signed for four reasons, Lopez, Hibbert, Howard, and Horford. Oden, if healthy, is the key to locking Hibbert down. The only thing Miami lacks is consistent rebounding, and Oden addresses that issue. Still, when you're making 52% of your shots, you're also generating less rebounds to collect. If Oden's in the game, Miami in five.
5. How important is winning a championship this season in relation to LeBron James continuing his career as a member of the Miami Heat?
Kevin: I can only answer this question from a personal standpoint. I have been a HEAT fan from the very start, and would follow (and have) the team whether they win 66 games and the title or 15 games and a high draft pick. It's a joy to see what James and Company can do every night, but if he leaves, I'll still love the HEAT. And as a fan, I'll still love to watch LBJ, wherever he lands. Although in the real world, one of your two options impact the other, as far as I can see, the two are mostly unrelated. I hope he plays here for 10 more years, but I'll still be here if he doesn't. Long live the King!
Thanks for playing along, Jim!
It was my pleasure.
Prior to the season, new head coach Jeff Hornacek and new defensive coordinator Mike Longabardi spoke to Bright Side about their plans to turn a bad defense and worse offense into strengths. So far, the results are there on both sides of the ball.
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.