At this late point in the season, good hard practices are few and far between. Getting needed rest to be fresh for games becomes paramount to drilling the schemes into the players between games with hard practices.
For the first time this season, the Phoenix Suns coaching staff posted the playoff standings in the locker room, showing the team that they are within 1.5 games of a playoff spot this morning.
Those standings are right next to Goran Dragic's locker. But he doesn't need the reminder.
"For me, personally, after every game we win or lose I always check the standings so I already knew how the standings are."
They all know that they've dropped out of the playoff situation in recent weeks.
"I think everybody checks that," Dragic said. "Even last game, we lost against Brooklyn Nets we checked the scores, especially Dallas and Memphis.
"We know Dallas lost tonight (Wednesday)."
The Dallas Mavericks lost to Minnesota on Wednesday night in overtime, pulling the Suns to within 1.5 games of both Memphis and Dallas after the Suns beat Orlando. The Mavs/Wolves game ended at halftime of the Suns game - a game in which the playoff-hopeful Suns were tied with the second-worst team in the East off a lackluster first half.
"At halftime, I said hey," Hornacek recounted. "If you think you guys are a playoff team, this is the time to come out at third quarters and you get after it and try to really take the game away. I think we were just playing the game for a half."
Dragic said they were told at halftime that Dallas had lost, a little boon to the team's spirits knowing they had a good chance to pull closer to the playoffs with a good second half.
"It was after our huddle," Dragic said. "Robert [Sarver] came in [to the locker room] and yelled 'Dallas lost, Dallas lost'!"
The Suns came out with a 7-0 start to the third quarter to create some separation, and then went began a 27-5 run with two three pointers at the end of the third before pouring it on in the fourth.
"We needed this win," Dragic said afterward.
Much has been made of the Suns' defensive lapses since the All-Star break. Before Wednesday's game, the Suns were giving up 107 points per 100 possessions since the break and were a bottom-five defense in field goal percentage allowed and points in the paint allowed.
Some of the regression can be blamed on the interior defense, never a strength of this team. But they have been a bottom-five team in points allowed in the paint all season with good results (39-29 record to this point), so that hasn't been the killer.
It's been slow rotations and missed assignments, leading to wide open jumpers and cuts to the basket. A growing problem can be the lack of practice time, which has to be much-needed for the league's least-experienced playoff contender.
"We haven’t really had a lot of practices, guys have been banged up," Gerald Green, one of the four veterans on the roster, said. "We’ve been on the road and it’s been kind of tough. At this point in the season, towards the end, it’s a lot tougher to get practice time."
Coach Hornacek agrees, but says he needs to balance rest with practice time.
"Yeah, this stretch here we only have two times in the last month and a half where we have two days off in a row," Hornacek said, "and both of them are off back-to-back games. So you give them the day off, and you can't really kill them [the next day] with a hard practice the day before another game. The schedule for us is tough right now. It's tough to have those practices where you're able to get the guys right."
"Do you want to practice something and be too tired to play?" he asked in response. "Or do you want to trust in the players that we're going to be able to be rested. If you want to practice, we don't know how to 'practice light'. There's no light practice, we only have one speed.
"So, do you want to win the game or do you want to practice?"
For Frye, practice isn't the answer at this point in the season. Yet, the slippage on rotations is there and young guys need the reminders.
The Suns entered the season with, collectively, the second-least NBA experience in the league. During the season, they added veterans Leandro Barbosa and Shavlik Randolph but have since turned back to the young guys to finish out the year. Alex Len played ahead Randolph in the last few games, putting up 9 points and 5 rebounds in only 11 minutes agains Vucevic-less Orlando. Barbosa injured a shoulder, toe and wrist in his first two months as a Sun, and is now out for the rest of the regular season.
Inexperience needs good habits drilled in, and the Suns just don't have time for it anymore.
"Tomorrow, I think guys are looking forward to [a hard practice] a little bit," Green said of today's non-game day. "It’s going to be tough but at the same time I know it’s going to help us and get us better and we’ll be ready for next game."
Despite being 25 years old, young center Miles Plumlee is only in his second year in the league, his first as a big-minutes player.
"I think that plays a factor," Plumlee said of lack of practice time. "We're not the most experienced team. I don't think our habits are ingrained to the level that other teams are. And so, if we aren't working on it consistently those things can slip."
As for Miles, he says he's past his down period where he lost energy.
"I feel as good or better than I have for a lot of the season," he said, after putting up 10 points and 9 rebounds in just 20 minutes against Orlando. Plumlee has come up one rebound or point shy of a DOUBLE double three times in the last six games, despite not exceeding 26 ,MINUTES in any of them.
Plumlee and Frye both commented that the coach has done a good job of managing minutes and getting guys the rest they need.
But it all comes back to what Channing Frye said is the key to success for this young team.
"You can't be all stressed out," he said. "That's not how we play. We've been one of those teams that's just been reckless, out there just to make havoc of everything and not play tight. We just need to go out there and win."
The Phoenix Suns and Orlando Magic fought toe to toe until the Suns broke open the game with a 27-5 run to take a 21-point lead and never looked back. The Magic, missing two of their best players and playing the second night of a back-to-back, didn't have the energy to finish strong.
The Phoenix Suns have lately been very good at making other teams' offenses look better than they are, and tonight's game was no exception. The Orlando Magic stayed close by using opportunistic hustle plays to convert broken plays into points on a regular basis. Until a game-deciding 27-5 run by the Suns, that is.
Goran Dragic had a "quiet" 18 points and 6 assists, while Eric Bledsoe flirted with a triple double until the game was a rout before he could get a chance (7 points, 7 assists, 6 assists in his first 20 minutes of play).
Gotta have a good win with a group of Bright Siders attended the game! Our own Jim Coughenour, Sean Sullivan, Scott Howard and East Bay Ray met up at Majerle's before the game started and managed not to make fools of themselves as the Suns and Magic slogged their way to an ugly, if entertaining, finish.
The game was tied until the Suns made 4 of 5 threes while the Magic missed everything to give the Suns a 12-point lead, starting a run that extended out to 27-5 before it was over.
And yes, the game was over as the Suns grabbed a 21 point lead with 7 minutes left.
All that remained was whether Eric Bledsoe would stay in the game long enough to grab a triple double. He had 7 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds in 20 minutes of play before the 4th started.
But Bledsoe hardly touched the ball, letting Ish Smith run the show after being such a big part of the game-deciding run.
The game started off slow for the Suns, missing four layups in the opening minutes, but then they began to heat up before Orlando could get too comfortable in their offense. Their 29th ranked offense, that is. But hey, these are the Suns so every team loves first quarters against them.
But with their top playmaker already out (Jameer Nelson), center Nikola Vucevic got himself ejected complaining about two offensive fouls he committed (was called for) with Channing Frye defending him.
The Magic still hung strong in the first behind Victor Oladipo (7 points, 4 assists) and two late buckets by Tobias Harris after Vucevic (8 points, 3 rebounds in 10 minutes) was ejected. The Magic made 50% of their shots (who doesn't, against the Suns?) and scored the same 25 points the Suns did.
The second quarter started off with a thud (three pointer by Nicholson) but then the Suns scored several possessions in a row thanks to the rookies with 7 quick points. It looked like a good summer league game for a while there.
The Magic remained in the game thanks to Arron Afflalo's shooting and basically outhustling the Suns as any young team should when they're playing young guys (younger than the Suns by a ways). Tobias Harris did athletic things the Suns couldn't contend, dropping 12 points and 4 rebounds in long minutes after Vucevic was kicked out.
These Suns just aren't playing strong D. In case you hadn't noticed.
Eric Bledsoe had a good half, with 5 points, 5 assists, 3 steals and 3 rebounds, while Goran Dragic had 12 points, 2 assists and a steal.
After allowing the Magic to score 52 points despite missing two of their best players, Jameer Nelson and Nikola Vucevic (ejection in first quarter), the Suns came out in the second half trying to prove something. They started the quarter on a 7-0 run, showing much better effort at the point of attack on defense.
Still, the Magic hung around on hustle plays. They are an athletic young team. And Miles Plumlee tries too hard, and too often messes up a good play opportunity.
The Suns maintained a 7-point lead until Eric Bledsoe got his rest and the Magic immediately went on a run to tie up the game. P.J. Tucker was having a hard time defending Arron Afflalo and the Suns missed several opportunities to widen the lead, including missing a point-blank fast break layup and throwing away an outlet pass. Factor in an Afflalo 4-point play and you've got yourself a ball game.
Thanks to a couple of threes by Marcus Morris in the final minute, the Suns had a 6-point lead heading into the fourth quarter.