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Living in the D.C. area since August, I can tell you there was some real hope that this Wizards team might be ready to jump from perennial cellar dwelling to legitimate playoff contender. Then it was announced that John Wall hurt his knee and would miss the start of the season. Then Nene also went down. Next thing you know, the Wizards are 0-12 to start the season and any chance of this team competing for the postseason went up in a puff of smoke.

Is John Wall turning a corner?

John Wall smoking threes
Bullets Forever explores the development of John Wall after one of his best shooting games ever.

But John Wall and some of his other injured mates came back. Rookie Bradley Beal learned the ways of the NBA and began to show us all that incredible potential we saw from the Florida shooting guard. The Wizards are now 18-18 since January 1. That .500 record extended over a full season would have them right where the optimists predicted -- fighting for a playoff birth.

That's a lot of words to point out that the Wizards are on the rise. John Wall continues to mature. Beal's incredible talent slowly translates into success on the court (I think Beal will easily be as good as a healthy Eric Gordon and perhaps be in James Harden's class.) The knuckleheads like Andray Blatche, Nick Young and Jordan Crawford are gone and in their place come veterans like Nene, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza

Baring some kind of miracle, it will be at least two or three years before your Phoenix Suns are where the Wizards are now.

Baring some kind of miracle, it will be at least two or three years before your Phoenix Suns are where the Wizards are now.

Game time: 7pm ET / 4pm PT on Fox Sports Arizona and NBALP

Prior Engagements:

This game is the first of two times these teams meet this season. The Wizards will be in Phoenix on March 20 to close out the much-anticipated season series.

The Suns beat the Wizards in their one meeting last year, 104-88. Wall had 10 points while Gortat (20 pts) and Frye (19 points and Nash (11 assists) led the Suns. Of course, none of those Phoenix players will be involved in Saturday night's affair.

Key Matchup:

Aside from the outcome's impact on the lottery ball chase, the most important and interesting aspect of this game is the point guard battle between Goran Dragic and John Wall.

Here's their season numbers via Basketball-reference.com.

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Wall has the slight edge in raw numbers while Goran is the more efficient player.

Watching them play, it's obvious that John is the more athletic of the two, but that gap isn't overly large. Wall's biggest asset is his ridiculous speed and ability to get by pretty much anyone. He's got good vision and passing that makes him into a classic drive and kick point guard and he's surrounded by decent shooters in Webster and Beal and bigs that can finish in Nene and Okafor.

Goran is a much more well-rounded player. He's the better "pure point" and a much better shooter. He's playing this season with a less talented supporting cast.

I tend to think we will be sitting here in 10 years agreeing that Dragic is the better player. That's not a given by any means, especially if John can improve his shooting and puts up more games like he did Friday against the Hornets. He went 9-12 from beyond 10 feet for a very rare sharpshooting performance. The man has a total of six three's on the season.

Prediction:

I can see Wall and Dragic playing to a draw while the rest of the Suns struggle to keep up with the slightly superior supporting cast in Washington. Unfortunately, we may not get to see Bradley Beal.

Bullets Forever has the injury report and preview from the Washington side.

Wizards vs Suns preview: Will Wall's daggers blot out the Suns? - Bullets Forever
Trevor Ariza, A.J. Price and Bradley Beal are all up in the air for Washington.

Suns should field the same unit they did in Atlanta. I'll be at the game saying hi to my old pals.

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That means you need to watch all the guys that could come to the Suns over these next few weeks and start drooling. There may not be a LeBron coming out, or even an Anthony Davis, but frankly any of the top ten or so guys will be better than anyone on the Suns current roster. Or, at least, COULD be better.

Potential #1 overall pick Nerlens Noel, only 18 and already dominant on defense, won't play this weekend and might not play for many months. He tore up his ACL and just had surgery to fix it after waiting two months for the swelling to go down.

But other guys are stepping up to the plate. Marcus Smart, Ben McLemore, Otto Porter, Victor Olidapo, Alex Len, Cody Zeller (another brother!) and good old Shabazz Muhammad are all ready to set the world on fire. So are a number of other guys too, but these are the ones who've gotten my attention so far.

Here's an open thread for anyone watching the NCAA tourneys this weekend to discuss draft prospects.

Basketball games are like boxing matches. Teams trade buckets like boxers trade jabs. A few times per round, one team lands a haymaker, and while that big play may not be a knockout blow, the big...

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Recap:

Goran Dragic came out in the first quarter trying to make his presence felt with six points in the first 3:15 of the game (albeit one on a defensive three second technical). Meanwhile, Josh Smith (who missed the Hawks last game due to injury) and Devin Harris scored the first 14 points for Altanta, who made six of their first nine shots. Both teams hit a cold spell in the middle of the quarter, with the Suns going scoreless for 4:07. To further illustrate the team's offensive difficulties, the Suns finally got their first assist with just 1:25 left in the quarter. Apparently the Hawks were also playing excellent free throw defense, as the Suns managed just two makes on six attempts in the quarter. Despite these inadequacies, the Suns managed to keep the game close as Dragic shouldered the load and dropped 10 in the quarter. Markieff Morris contributed seven boards in the quarter and capped the period with a circus shot with just .5 seconds left on a full court pass. Josh Smith topped all scorers with 11. Score: Hawks 27, Suns 23.

The Suns returned the first quarter favor to the Hawks by committing their own defensive three to start the second period. The Suns followed that with six straight points and took their first lead (29-28) since 6-4 on a truculent throwdown by Jared Dudley (by his comparative standards). The teams went back and forth, but after a tomahawk dunk by Jermaine O'Neal made the score 37-39 the Hawks went on an 11-2 run to stretch their lead to 50-39. The Suns regained their composure and kept the game from getting out of hand, but a buzzer beating three (emphatically responding to Morris's first quarter theatrics) by DeShawn Stevenson resulted in an 11 point Hawks lead at the half. Score: Hawks 57, Suns 46.

The Suns managed to survive the first half only down by 11 despite being dominated in most aspects of the game. The Hawks shot 53.7% from the field compared to the Suns 40.5% and made 7-14 threes while the Suns were a meager 1-10. Dragic did his part to keep the game within reach with 15 points and three assists in the half. Jared Dudley also chipped in seven points, four rebounds and four assists in the second quarter. Most of the rest of the team appeared enervated... Harris was Goran's doppelganger with 15 and three of his own, while Smith had 13 points and seven rebounds.

The Suns got off to a quick start in the third as O'Neal ripped off 10 quick points, but the demons of the three point shot continued to haunt them as triples helped the Hawks maintain their separation. After the Suns had closed the gap to five points (63-68) the Hawks went on a 12-3 run to go up by 14. It was pathetic defense coupled with putrid offense. The Suns hemorrhaged points on defense while managing just five points on offense the last 6:17 of the quarter. Dragic transformed from scorer to facilitator as he handed out five assists in the period, but scored just one point. Smith crept closer to a triple double, finishing the period with 17 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists (and one technical for throwing a temper tantrum). Score: Hawks 82, Suns 68.

The Hawks just crept further and further away from the Suns in the fourth. By the midway point the Hawks led by 18 (96-78) and the game was effectively over. The Suns displayed more gumption than two nights ago in Houston, but that helped little in the face of a chasmic discrepancy in team talent and the boisterous Hawks crowd (being facetious there - the Hawks crowd is so subdued you can barely tell they're awake).

Final Score: Hawks 107, Suns 94.

Game Boxscore.

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Player of the Game:

Dragic gets the nod with game highs of 21 points and eight assists. The Hawks had solid, but not spectacular, performances by all five starters.

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Comments of the Game:

Woo!

JO is back

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Atlanta crowd/announcers suck really really hard...

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Who thinks Dragic can hit the 30 mark tonight?

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Marcus Morris with an "All-bad" statline

4 misses, 3 TOs, 1 PF and not a single other stat.

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Unsurprisingly

Lakers look fluid with Nash instead of Kobe running the show

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Lol, Dragic and O'Neal. That is it. The rest are scrubs.

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When Haddadi smiles, children in the 42nd row start crying.

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I watched to the end to see if we could lose by less than 10.

Oh well.

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The Good:

Goran Dragic stepped up when the Suns needed him and provided a scoring punch in the first half while his teammates muddled their way to 12-35 shooting. He's the team leader and tonight he led. Goran tapered off after his scorching start, but still finished with game highs of 21 points and eight assists.

Jermaine O'Neal punished the Hawks inside all night long, providing a much needed inside presence that was sorely lacking in his absence. O'Neal, who finished with 18 points on 7-9 shooting, has truly been a bright spot in this morass of a season.

A Markieff Morris sighting resulted in a double double of 15 points and 11 rebounds. It would be nice to see more consistent play from Markieff.

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The Bad:

The Suns three point defense. After Kyle Korver had just drained the Hawks ninth three pointer I realized I couldn't remember if I'd seen the Suns close out on a three point shooter the whole game. Couple that with the Suns own ineptitude from deep and it makes it pretty hard to win.

Tempo. The Suns are trying to become a defensive-minded team, but that doesn't go very swimmingly when they can't dictate pace. Surrendering 57 points in the first half is the antipode of controlling tempo. It's far too easy for other teams to impose their will on the Suns.

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The Ugly:

Nothing too hideous tonight. It wasn't a tribute to basketball excellence and the defense was pretty deplorable, but after the Rockets fiasco it didn't seem bad at all.

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Final Thoughts:

The Suns just aren't talented enough to compete for 48 minutes most nights. At least tonight they kept it somewhat respectable. Another loss, another lottery number combination as the Suns approach their second worst record in franchise history.

Also, screw the Lakers.

Scoreboard

Celtics 113, Suns 88

Raptors 98, Suns 71

Nuggets 111, Suns 81

Are these all of the Suns bad losses this season? No. These are the bad losses in the last ten games. The Suns have made an artform of losing in spectacular fashion this season with 11 of their 43 losses coming by 20 or more points. The practice of getting thumped has actually increased since Lindsey Hunter took over. In 24 games under Hunter the Suns have lost by 20+ six times after only doing so five times in 41 games under Alvin Gentry. While the Suns have a slightly better winning percentage over the last 24 (9-15 37.5%) than under Gentry (13-28 31.7%) it appears they have become more prone to calling it a night when they face adversity.

But when the Suns don't enter meltdown mode they've actually fared pretty well. The Suns are 13-10 this season in games decided by six or less points. Comparative to their overall record (22-43) that's actually a testament to their ability to close out games (considering how bad the team is). What's even more impressive is that the team is 8-1 in games decided by six or less points under Hunter.

8-1.

Only once, in Hunter's first game, have the Suns won by more than six points in their last 24 games. Compared to a 5-9 record in such games under Gentry the team has finally figured out a formula for closing out tight contests.

So the team is either battling or getting blown out.

In the Suns nine wins under Hunter the average margin of victory is +4.8 points. In the teams 15 losses, the margin of defeat is -16.9. Quite an incongruous dynamic at play. The team either competes or gets their teeth kicked in. Is this a function of young players building confidence when they stay in games? The other end of the spectrum, and more prevalent, is that once the team becomes disconcerted they tend to enter meltdown mode and have quit several times in my opinion.

Lindsey Hunter has apparently noticed this himself after the Suns latest imbroglio at Houston, "Our guys have to compete and I didn't see that. It's very disappointing, very embarrassing, unacceptable."

I agree, coach, it's all of those things. But it's nothing new.

We can parse season data to analyze this from a different angle.

The Suns are 7-25 this season when their opponent scores at least 100 points. The differential for the Suns in those games is -11.3. In their seven wins the margin is +6.4, while it is -15.6 in the losses. The Suns have won close games and gotten their asses handed to them in the losses.

In 12 of those 32 games the Suns have also topped 100 points with their opponent. The Suns are 7-5 in those games with a +.9 average margin of victory. In the games the Suns haven't topped 100 (obviously they are 0-20) they have lost by an average of 17.8 points. 20 losses by an average of 17.8 points. The Suns have had their share of savage beatings.

What about the Lindsey Hunter era?

The Suns have reached 100 points five times and are 4-1 in those games with a +2.2 margin. Suns opponents have scored 100 12 times and the Suns are 2-10 in those games with a deficit of 14 points. The new defensive philosophy of the Suns shows up half the time (12 of 24 games holding their opponent below 100 points), but just as important is an offense that only shows up one in five games.

By this train of thought a game like Houston is nearly over by the time the Rockets score 30 in the first quarter (well on their way to 100) and by a score of 58-45 at halftime you should turn the tv off if you don't want to watch the Suns lose.

The Suns may be terrible, but at least they're predictably terrible.

This conclusion has other implications for your viewership and rooting interests as well. If you're a person of the disposition of cheering for draft lottery number combinations you might not want to watch competitive games. I lamented over the fact that the Suns could lose independent of getting humiliated after the debacle in Houston, but maybe they can't. Maybe those of you wanting the Suns to climb the lottery ladder have to accept that the Suns self-respect will likely need to be pillaged in order for the team to amass enough L's to pick commensurate with your wishes.

Somewhat of a grim prospect, but something to mull over nonetheless.

This also has ramifications for those of you that still want the Suns to win at any cost. If the Suns are still in the game at the end of the third quarter there's a very good chance they will win. That should give you a confidence boost when the game is coming down to the wire.

Hopefully you've enjoyed digesting this dissertation. It has to be easier to swallow than the noxious performance by the Suns on Wednesday. The data reveals the significance of the numbers 100 and six. With 17 left the Suns also need six to avoid 27 and infamy. They still have a chance at finishing three, but on 5/21 the holy grail of numbers is one.

*Special thanks to Kris Habbas for contributing research to this article.

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