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.

We should have known this was coming. After all, it is Green Week in the NBA. It was Green Night in Portland. Gerald rained in 32 as he put on a show for the stunned Blazers crowd and gave the Suns a crucial road victory.

By the time they took the court the Suns were all alone in ninth place. No tiebreakers, just flat out behind. Memphis had just taken care of the Denver Nuggets, winning 100-92, while Phoenix was staring in the face of a much more potent adversary.

The Moda Center Rose Garden was rocking early in the game. To their credit, Blazers fans are an obstreperous, engaged group. Goran Dragic attempted to quiet the crowd, but appeared to be forcing the issue instead of letting the game come to him and went 1-6 in the early going with a technical foul before earning himself some early rest.

An efficacious substitution resulted in Gerald Green inciting a push to help the Suns gain and maintain a lead in the latter part of the first quarter. Green and Eric Bledsoe each scored 10 in the period as they combined to shoot 7-8 from the field. Unfortunately, the rest of the Suns were a paltry 3-17.

After a quick spell, Goran came back in and gave the Suns a six point lead (40-34) by scoring six points in 25 seconds on a three pointer followed by a finish and free throw on a fast break. Through the early part of the second quarter Robin Lopez, the one that got away, was keeping the Blazers close by being a hustling, disruptive, rim protecting, free throw making force.

As the game unfurled in the second quarter it became apparent that the Suns had a little bit of an edge tonight. They were playing angry. I'll refrain from using the word chippy here because it's way too hockeyish.

The Suns controlled the tone of the game for most of the second quarter and led 51-45 before going limp by failing to score in the final 4:12 of the half. They went 0-11 from the field and missed two free throws during the stretch. Portland seized the opportunity and turned a six point deficit into a three point halftime lead (54-51).

The beginning of the third quarter was not kind to the Suns. Digging a hole against a quality opponent in a hostile environment is never desirable... and suddenly the Suns found themselves down double digits. Instead of shrinking while they were going through a rough patch Phoenix redoubled their effort. At times it looked like there were two or three of Miles Plumlee on the court as he was having one of his best rebounding games of the season. Miles was dwarfed by Lopez's sheer size, but was doing his best to offset the big man's impact.

LaMarcus Aldridge started to get it going a little bit after a four point first half and poured in 12 in the third quarter, but the Suns chipped away at the lead and kept themselves within striking distance.

At the beginning of the fourth quarter Phoenix regained the lead (81-80) on an emphatic (SportsCenter Top 10) dunk by Gerald Green after intentionally passing the ball to himself off the backboard. Green was officially in heat check mode. A few minutes later he hit a three to give Phoenix a 95-85 lead and the Portland faithful were absolutely staggered.

A 26-7 run can have that kind of an effect on a crowd.

The Blazers had been taken completely out of their comfort zone. All Phoenix did down the stretch was win every 50/50 ball, grab every big rebound and make every big shot. Bledsoe was pouring it on, too, going for 12 of his 30 points in closing mode. The Suns regifted the fourth quarter ass whipping the Clippers had laid on them two nights earlier. The final tally of the carnage in the fourth was 30-13 as the Suns walked to a 109-93 victory in a big time game.

I'm going to slip this one into my mental filing cabinet of things I'm going to look back on when I think of what a great season this was.

**Our crackerjack group of stat guys tell me that this is the first time the Suns have had two players score 30 in the same game since the last time it happened (whenever that was).

Jeff Hornacek must have gotten the message across. Two losses to the Los Angeles teams in a row made the Phoenix Suns able to see the end of their season on the horizon, but at first against the...

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