The Phoenix Suns had been cheating death through the first two weeks of the NBA season, but last week they were scythed. Speaking of dead things, I exhume some information from the beginning of last season... and find some disturbing interesting parallels.

It's really hard to use a simple set of criteria to define what a close game is.  For the sake of this I will use within 5 points with less than five minutes to go (sort of).  But that isn't always a close game...  A team could score to cut it to five with 4:30 to go only to see their opponent nail a three on the ensuing possession and run off 10 straight.  Not so close. What if a team is down by 10 plus the entire fourth quarter and then hits a pair of meaningless threes in the last few seconds of the game to lose by five?

A final score within five points can also be prevaricative, as a game could have been tied with two minutes to go before one team pulled away.

Maybe a single score game (three points) in the final three minutes is better?  What are your thoughts?

But here's the inadequately insufficient touchstone of the five/five as it relates to the 2012-13 Phoenix Suns.

0-1: Loss vs. Golden St. 87-85 (Suns up by one at 1:43)

1-1: Win vs. Detroit 92-89 (Suns up by five at :52, three at :21 and two at :04)

2-1: Win vs. Charlotte 117-110 (Suns up by four at 3:31 and :31)

3-1: Win vs. Cleveland 107-105  (Suns trailed by one at 1:47)

3-2: Loss vs. Utah 94-81 (Suns trailed by five at 4:46)

4-2: Win vs. Denver 110-100 (Suns up by two at 3:00)

4-3: Loss vs. Chicago 112-106 OT (Suns never led in OT)

The Suns other two losses were blowout affairs emceed by Miami (124-99) and Orlando (115-94).  Still, the Suns had been playing, and winning, a lot of close games early in the season.  After nine games they sat at 4-5.

At that nine game point a lot of us still felt that the window for the Suns was between 30-40 wins, rife with a pick in the 10-12 range.  There was even still a contingent (Jim sheepishly raises hand) claiming that Michael Beasley, and the eventual contretemps this experiment devolved into, should be shown some clemency as it would take some time for him to adjust to his new surroundings.  That's still a situation where I defend my logic, but feel like a blithering buffoon for not recognizing an obvious exception. Several early impressions were shattered.

Using just five points or less, the Suns would be just 2-1.  It would even cut out the six point overtime loss... because obviously that wasn't close.  Using three/three eliminates the Charlotte and Utah games, making the Suns 3-2.

Regardless of the exact criterion, though, these results show that the Suns were performing well in close games.

Fast forward to this year.

1-0: Win vs. Portland 104-91 (Suns up by five at 3:15)

2-0: Win vs. Utah 87-84 (Suns trailed by three at 4:20, Bledsoe game winner at :00.4)

2-1: Loss vs. OKC 103-96 (Suns trailed by one at 4:47, one at :30)

3-1: Win vs. NO 104-98 (Suns up by four at 4:18 and :04)

3-2: Loss vs. SA 99-96 (Suns up by one at :40)

4-2: Win vs. Denver 114-103 (Suns up by four at 1:57)

5-2: Win vs. NO 101-94 (Suns by five at 2:39)

5-3: Loss vs. Portland 90-89 (Suns up by four at 2:30, Lillard game winner at :04)

5-4: Loss vs. Brooklyn 100-98 OT (tied at :56 in OT, Johnson game winner as time expired)

Using the five/five metric all nine of these games would be considered close, and for the most part they have been, but two of the games never got within that five point mark and another never got within four.

Using the games decided by five points stat the Suns would be 1-3.  That seems like a fairly preposterous gauge of their performance.  But using the three/three they would be even worse (1-4)...

What gives?  Well, the other four wins were games where the other team never even got within one possession in the final five minutes.  Two ways of looking at it (feel free to add more of your own):

1. The Suns are more confident with an insulator between them and their opponent.  Once the other team makes it really tight the Suns lose their equanimity and doubt creeps in. The Suns only have one win, against Utah, when they've trailed in the final five minutes. In these games the Suns are 1-4.

2. The Suns have played well enough in those fourth quarters that their opponents couldn't manage to scrap their way back in.  The Suns led from wire to wire down the stretch and showed great poise as closers.  In these games the Suns are 4-0.

Speaking of closers, let's look at how Eric Bledsoe has performed in these late game situations to earn the moniker "Mr. Fourth Quarter."

Portland: 2-3 FG, 4-4 FT, 8 points

Utah: 4-9 FG, 2-4 3FG, 7-8 FT, 17 points (14 straight to close game including game winning three)

OKC: 3-8 FG, 1-5 3FG, 3-4 FT, 10 points

NO: 3-3 FG, 4-4 FT, 10 points

SA: 0-3 FG, 0-1 FT, 0 points

Denver: 3-4 FG, 1-1 3FG, 2-2 FT, 9 points

NO: 3-4 FG, 1-1 3FG, 7 points

Portland: 1-7 FG, 2 points

Brooklyn: Fourth quarter: 1-4 FG, 0-3 3FG, 2 points. OT: 0-1 3FG, 0 points

After a parching four games to begin the campaign, EB has been tepid at best. Through four games Bledsoe had scored 45 points on 12-23 shooting.  Doubly dazzling was his 18-20 mark from the charity stripe.  Add in the surreal performance to close out the Jazz and Blade was playing as well as anyone in the league in crunch time.

Then he tapered off.  The next five games produced just 18 points.  In fact, Bledsoe had 16 of those in the Suns' two wins during that stretch and only four points in the three losses.  Eric is a combined 8-23 (35%) and, maybe most disconcerting, has only attempted three free throws.


In 2012-13, Shannon Brown started off the season as that team's "Mr. Fourth Quarter."  He had 10 points against Detroit on 5-8 shooting and went mushroom cloud against the Bobcats with 18 points on 6-8 shooting (and 6-6 from three point range) against Charlotte. Then he had 12 more against Cleveland on 5-7 shooting (with one made three and one made free throw).  Then he had eight points on 4-6 shooting against the Nuggets.

After all that the Suns stood at 4-4 and Shannon "The Cannon" Brown had cumulatively scored 48 points in the fourth quarters of the four wins.  He was shooting 20-29 from the field (69%).  Yes, that actually happened... go check for yourself if you don't believe me. For comparison, Bledsoe's best four scoring totals in the Suns five wins still only netted him 44 points on 12-24 shooting.

The oft maligned, and deservedly so, Brown Bomber was mad clutch. For those of you not familiar with these nicknames, they are more stinging jabs than signs of affection.  Brown's ability to over-dribble and end up taking a difficult shot grated on the soul.  We can all be thankful that the current Suns don't have a guard with even remotely similar tendencies...  As aforementioned, disturbing interesting parallels.

Not to say that EB hasn't provided defense and intangibles that Brown didn't, but those of you who remember that Charlotte game know that Brown was every bit as responsible for single-handedly winning that game as Bledsoe was for the victory against Utah.

The point of this isn't to suggest that Brown is even remotely close to EB talentwise. It would be lunacy to suggest that Blade isn't a far superior player, but this little stitch in time did make me chortle. Besides, ball-stopping and decision making have been issues at times...


Making sense out of the senseless

So what does this all mean?  Maybe something, maybe nothing.

Last season's team played a bunch of close games early on and fared well behind the heroic exploits of Shannon Brown.

This season's team played a bunch of close games early on and fared well behind the heroic exploits of Eric Bledsoe.

The Suns failed to execute in the waning moments of both games last week.  Eric Bledsoe, P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris all missed last second shots in Portland, while Goran Dragic and Channing Frye couldn't connect against Brooklyn.  Any one of those five shots goes in and the Suns (very probably) go 1-1 instead of 0-2.

Do these types of games help build the confidence of a young team?  It didn't seem to help the veterans last season.  After starting 7-8 they crumbled, with losing streaks of seven, six and five games stretching through December.

But that team also got rode hard and put away wet a couple times in the early going, something we haven't witnessed from this season's team so far.  Against the Nuggets and Nets things appeared to be unraveling, but the youngsters weathered the storm.

Bledsoe is seemingly regressing to his norm.  After 9 games he has scored 65 fourth quarter points.  After averaging 11.3 through four games, he averaged just four in the next five contests.  That's still an average of 7.2 per game.  That would most likely put him top five in the league in that category if he could maintain that pace.  Which means this nine games is still probably above average.

Since the success of the team so far has been closely tied to the performance of Bledsoe, this may not bode well. Less than three weeks ago doubts swirled about EB's ability to succeed in a starting role.  Now he is expected to carry a team of tyros.  That's a tall order.

The Suns and Blade came back down to earth a little last week.  Will the team return to a more celestial state or burrow into the outer crust?  If the at least tenuous similarities I covered in this disquisition continue... The Suns better grab some gloves so they don't get blisters from that shovel.

PHOENIX — Late-game execution makes a winning team in the NBA, but the Phoenix Suns would rather avoid that theory altogether. The painful ending in the Suns’ 100-98 loss to the Brooklyn...

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This was a tough week for the Suns who started out the week well with a quality win against the Pelicans, only to finish with two back-to-back, heart-breaking losses that went down to the wire. Even so, the Suns certainly had some great moments among all of the heartache...led by a group of players who refused to lay down and quit. So who deserves to be named the Player of the Week?

The Finalists

Eric Bledsoe aka "The Bulldog"

Weekly Stat Averages:

Points: 20.6 FG%: .488 Assists: 5.3 Steals: 1.3 Rebounds: 3.75

Eric Bledsoe continues to be one of the most exciting players to watch in the league...not just on the Suns. Bledsoe is scoring all over the court and continues to lead the team in scoring while still packing up assists, rebounds, and even the occasional block on a seven-footer.

Although Bledsoe wasn't the 4th quarter closer this week that the fans have grown accustomed to, he still provided the Suns with plenty of scoring, and helped provide a spark to the offense on multiple occasions. Bledsoe continues to shine and give Suns' fans plenty of reasons to be excited.

Goran Dragic aka "The Red Dragon"

Weekly Stat Averages:

Points: 15.0 FG%: .424 Assists: 4.2 Steals: 1.5 Rebounds: 1

Looking at the stat line alone, Dragic's week doesn't seem very impressive. However, anyone who saw the games and knows what happened during the week will certainly tell you how impressive the Dragon was in these last three games.

Dragic returned to the line-up against the Pelicans this Sunday, after injuring his ankle the week prior and missing a couple of games because of it. He came off the bench and was limited initially, but quickly picked up right where he had left off. Then, the day before the game against the Blazers, Dragic's wife gave birth to their first son, Mateo. Although he missed practice the day of, he returned to the team in time for the road trip to Portland. Dragic returned to the starting line-up and played extremely well through the first three quarters, but crashed into Mo Williams going after a loose ball and cut his eye/nose so badly that he had to exit the game and receive 13 stitches.

Dragic once again returned to the line-up against the Nets and gave his all, leading the team with 19 points and 10 assists...all with a bandage halfway covering his still swollen and bruised eye. There's no doubting Dragic's toughness, skill, nor his resolve to play hard and fight to the finish. His greatest attributes were all on full display throughout the week.

Gerald Green aka "The Sniper"

Weekly Stat Averages:

Points: 13.3 FG%: .500 Rebounds: 1.6

Miles Plumlee had a fairly good week overall, but struggled mightily against the Nets and was thoroughly outplayed by the taller and more refined Brook Lopez to end the week. So, it seems like a good time to give Gerald Green his due.

Night in and night out, Gerald Green is quietly having one of the biggest impacts on this dynamic Suns team. His athleticism is unreal, and he seems to have a knack in knocking down those big shots to help solidify the lead, or close the gap when the Suns need him most.

Gerald Green is in the process of reinventing himself as an NBA player, and is off to an outstanding start. He seems to have found the right fit on a young, exciting Suns team where he can grow along side the rest of the players.

The Player of the Week

Goran Dragic

Phoenix may have one of the most exciting, up-and-coming point guards in the league in Eric Bledsoe, but Goran Dragic is still the heart and soul of the Phoenix Suns. This week's award has more to do with the toughness, resiliency, and mental fortitude of the Dragon than just his stat line.

Goran Dragic's inspired play was cut short this week due to him coming off of one injury and receiving yet another. However, he never stopped fighting, attacking, and leading the team while he was on the court, and finished the week with one of his best performances of the season thus far.

Who Do You Think Deserves To Be Named the Suns' Player of the Week?

  232 votes | Results

Welcome to the first edition of a weekly column I'll be writing looking beyond the Valley of the Sun to highlight the best of the best in the NBA. Let's take a stroll around the Association.

*Editor's Note: This column will regularly run every Friday; I looked up the numbers and did most of the writing on Thursday and Friday,  but ran out of time before I finished it, and therefore most of the numbers do not include games played on Friday or Saturday

First off, I'd just like to say how great it is to have basketball back on our televisions. We finally get to watch and discuss real basketball. We're now eight or nine games into the season for most teams, and thus far we have seen some phenomenal games and some outstanding performances.

One thing that has stood out to me thus far is the play of the point guards across the league. A disclaimer is necessary here as it is still too early to draw long-term, legitimate comparisons. But that doesn't mean we can't get excited.

The Point God Chris Paul is playing as well as he ever has and is showing why he is clearly the best player at his position in the league. Paul has recorded a double-double in every game he's played in thus far. He's nearly putting up a 20-13-5-3 stat-line on good shooting percentages, and is making it look easy in the process. He's 5th in the league among regular rotation players in win shares per 48 minutes, trailing only Kevin Love, Paul George, Markieff Morris (!!!!!) and Carlos Boozer.

Paul also put up one of if not the best game anyone will have all season long in an early season showdown with the Golden State Warriors. Paul finished with 42 points on 12-20 shooting, 15 assists and six steals while out-dueling another phenomenal point guard in GSW's Stephen Curry. Forget Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Lob City; Chris Paul is the reason to tune in any time the Los Angeles Clippers are on TV.

Speaking of the Warriors, they might be the most fun team in the entire NBA an are led by a pretty spectacular point guard in Curry. The best shooter in the NBA is scoring just over 20 points per game on a nearly 60 percent effective field goal percentage. He's also dropping a career-high 8.5 assists per game (he's turning it over at a high rate too, but 18 of his 29 give-aways came in two games). Curry is definitely a point guard despite some people still believing otherwise.

In that early season game against the Clippers, Curry hit nine threes on his way to 38 points and nine assists. Explosions like this from Curry are not all that uncommon, either. The sharpshooter had games of 38, 39, 44, 47 and 54 last season for the Warriors. Curry is one of the most entertaining players in the league, and the rest of the Golden State starters (Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut) complement him perfectly. This year's Warriors squad is must-see TV.

We can't forget about Tony Parker. San Antonio is the best executing team in the NBA and Parker is a master of how to play within that system. He's putting up an easy 18.1 points per game on over 50 percent from the field, and he isn't even playing his best ball yet.

Although their teams haven't gotten off to the best of starts, Mike Conley and Ty Lawson have played tremendously. Conley is putting up 20 and five on over 50 percent from the field, which isn't easy on a team with as little spacing as the Grizzlies. And Lawson is playing even better, putting up 21, seven and almost five rebounds per game with a 54.4 true shooting percentage.

In addition to the bigger names, we have some younger floor generals putting up big numbers as well. Atlanta's Jeff Teague (18 and 10), Sacramento's Isaiah Thomas (18 and five in just 28 minutes per game), Minnesota's Ricky Rubio (10 and 10 and the driving force behind a really fun Timberwolves team), Portland's Damian Lillard (20, five and five) and even Houston's Jeremy Lin (18 and five on a ridiculous 61.6 effective field goal percentage) have all played remarkably well so far.

Unfortunately, it's not all puppies and sunshine. Some of the best point guards in the game have struggled mightily in the early going. Some are returning from injury, while the others for reasons I don't quite understand just aren't getting it done. Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, two of the ten or so best players in the game, have both been pretty bad after returning from significant injuries. Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Jrue Holiday and Deron Williams have all struggled to different degrees as well. Take a look at the numbers for yourself.

Derrick Rose 31.5 14.7 33.3 25.0 90.0 42.0 36.5 4.5 4.2 2.8 0.2 -.080
Russell Westbrook 32.7 21.0 40.4 36.4 73.2 49.6 44.0 5.0 4.7 4.5 2.0 .040
Kyrie Irving 34.9 19.4 38.6 33.3 73.7 46.6 43.0 6.9 3.0 4.2 0.6 .036
John Wall 36.9 17.0 37.9 35.3 83.3 48.6 42.7 8.8 3.4 4.8 1.9 .090
Jrue Holiday 32.8 13.8 39.8 47.4 94.4 47.4 43.5 6.8 4.1 3.1 1.6 -.020
Deron Williams 28.4 11.1 41.7 37.5 75.0 50.5 47.9 7.4 3.1 2.0 0.7 .028

Not pretty. Rose's struggles are understandable considering how long he was off the court. The same is true for Westbrook to a lesser extent. The more they play, the closer they get to 100 percent.

Irving, Wall and Holiday are not coming off of major injuries like the first two, and their struggles have been more perplexing.

One of the things that made Irving so great was his terrific shooting percentages from the field, deep and charity stripe, yet he's struggling from all three right now.

Wall's struggles lie almost exclusively with his 2-point field goal percentage as the rest of his numbers are more or less fine. Again, looking at his career numbers, I expect him to sort this out and get back to around 45 percent from inside the arc.

Holiday's entire game has been erratic thus far. He had a truly All-Star caliber first half of last season, but after the break his efficiency took a nose-dive and this year it's been even worse. He's adjusting to a new team but that doesn't excuse the poor play. I'm not really sure who Holiday is.

Finally, Deron Williams has been a shadow of himself this season. He got off to a slow start last year while dealing with injuries before bouncing back and closing out the year strong. However, just like the other All-Star vets on the Nets he has struggled early on. I'm not so sure his issues are as fixable as the younger players, though. We've probably seen the last of 20 and 10 Deron Williams.

Now hold, you may be saying to yourself. 1,100 words and you haven't even mentioned new Phoenix Suns player Eric Bledsoe? Haven't you ever heard of saving (one of) the best for last? Bledsoe's early season performance definitely compares favorably to the other point guards mentioned above.

Bledsoe is averaging 20.4 points on 50 percent shooting, 6.8 assists and 4.6 rebounds through nine games. That stat line puts him in pretty elite company (and by company I mean only one other player is putting up those kinds of numbers). See for yourself.

Bledsoe's overall performance has been outstanding and has driven the Suns to this unexpected success. He is third among starting point guards in points per game, ninth in assists per game, sixth in rebounds per game, ninth in steals per game and third in field goal percentage. His game still has its flaws (too many 3-pointers at a low percentage, turnovers), but the positive has far outweighed the negative. The only question that remains is whether or not he can keep this up, as this season's line is drastically different than his career numbers suggest.

And don't forget Goran Dragic. Dragic has had unbelievably bad luck so far this season, missing three games and leaving three others early with injuries. Yet when he has been at full strength, he has been a force. Dragic posted 26 points and nine assists in the season opener against Portland, and celebrated his return to the starting lineup after a game coming off the bench with 19 points and 10 assists. I'm expecting a big year from Dragic as soon as he can find a way to stay on the court for an entire game.

This is a glorious age in the NBA for point guards, and the Suns have two of the better ones in the league on their roster in DragonBlade.

After two last-second losses in as many games, the 5-4 Suns realize that the NBA season won't come easy. They need to grow up fast, or run the risk of losing more close games than not.

The Phoenix Suns are only the 10th youngest team in the NBA this season if you count 31-year old Emeka Okafor. Without Okafor, they are in the top five.

But in terms of NBA experience, only one team (bonus points if you can find that one team!) has played fewer NBA minutes than the Phoenix Suns you're watching this season.

Last night's game against Brooklyn was a study in contrast. Kevin Garnett of the of the Brooklyn Nets began the game having played almost 10,000 more NBA minutes BY HIMSELF than the entire Suns 13-man roster (47,955 vs. 38,403, according to Nets PR). Let that sink in for a minute.

Going even a step further, Kevin Garnett has played starters minutes nearly his entire career, while the collective 38K Suns minutes are primarily backup minutes.

Only one Suns player, Channing Frye, has started at least half his team's games in more than two NBA seasons before this one. That's it. Channing Frye. Channing did that three times in his first seven NBA seasons, twice with the Suns.

Not one player on the team averaged as many as 30 minutes per game more than once in their career, and only Goran Dragic accomplished that feat last season, 2012-13.

No All-Star appearances. No All-NBA players. And only one, Markieff Morris the other day, has even had a good enough WEEK to be recognized as one of the best in the NBA for a few short days.

Compare that to the Nets, who boast a collective 36 All-Star seasons out of their starting five alone.

Remember that dichotomy as the Suns come up short in tight games. The Phoenix Suns are 5-4 on the young season, with every single game being within 5 points in the last 5 minutes. So far, the Suns have come out on top more than not. That's a pretty good start considering their experience level.

"It's a new team with a lot of new players," Dragic said of 9 new rotation players out of 13 on the active roster, adding yet another wrinkle to the inexperience. "So we still have to find each other to play as a team."

It's not just the players going through growing pains this season. The coaching staff is learning on the fly too.

Head Coach Jeff Hornacek is a rookie game caller. He knows what he wants to happen in the closing minutes and seconds of a game. He can visualize it and get that across to his team.

But he can't execute it himself. He can't make those on-the-fly decisions for his players as option one breaks down.

And he's not experienced enough to envision the downside of each option.

On the Suns' final possession of overtime against the Nets with the game tied, Hornacek trusted his players to make the right play. He had Channing Frye in there for shooting, with his lightning-rodfast point guards deciding the game's fate. What could go wrong?

"On the last one," Hornacek said in his own words minutes after the game ended. "We kicked it out and Channing had a good look at it. He didn't make it. Then we had the rebound. P.J. [Tucker] and Marcus [Morris, with 14 rebounds between them to that point] both got for it and I think P.J. said that Marcus looked like he was in front of him a little bit. So he let it go and somehow it popped up. They take off with it and Joe makes a shot from six feet out. So, you know, a bad break at the end that ended up losing the game."

An approved second or third option was to dump the ball to the team's best shooter who'd finally gotten hot after a long cold spell. At 6'11" with good extension, Frye's shot is such that even the tallest Nets player can't block it. With the Suns struggling against the Net's size all game long (6'7" point guard Shawn Livingston and 6'8" shooting guard Joe Johnson the shortest on the floor), giving it to a guy who can't get blocked a good backup plan.

Yet, Frye is a three-point shooter. And three-point shots tend to bounce far off the rim on a miss - often times all the way to the back court. When your team has the ball with 4 more seconds on the game clock than the shot clock, the last thing you should want is a long rebound on a miss.

And that's exactly what transpired. If Frye drains that shot - he was 2-for-3 to that point on threes from the same spot on the right angle - he's a hero and the Suns go home laughing and smiling.

But if he misses, the rebound would go long and chaos could ensue. The last four seconds of the game seemed to last an eternity as Joe Johnson loped down the court to time his game-winner with the final buzzer. Heart break.

It's games like this that Jeff Hornacek will file away into his mental databank as a learning experience. Maybe don't design a plan around hoisting a three-pointer with only a few seconds left on the game clock and a tie score. Force a closer shot that doesn't bounce away and you've got another overtime, at worst, or a foul call or made basket, at best. Yet a long rebound allows the other team plenty of time to score.

Hornacek will also remember the last possession of regulation, where Dragic tried to convert his patented dipsy-do stop-turnaround on Lopez. It was the same play Dragic scored on Gasol last year in a win over Memphis.

"You can't say anything," Hornacek said, careful with his words to avoid a league fine for complaining about officials, "but I'd like to look at Goran's [shot at the end of regulation]. They let things go at the end of the game so you really have to make a tough shot. You get the big guy, you drive by him and then you can't get the clean shot off."

Contact at the end of the game going uncalled. Long three-pointers bounding off for long rebounds, making for easy fast-break opportunities.

All learning experiences for a rookie coach and a team with the second-least NBA experience in the league.

"It happened so fast," P.J. Tucker said after the game. He was stewing over the last missed rebound in OT, the one that went to Johnson for the game-winner. "I should have grabbed [Johnson]. It would have been a foul or jump ball or something. Not a fast break. Happened so fast."

Tucker couldn't stop shaking his head.

"I wish we played tomorrow, man."

More from Bright Side Of The Sun:

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