Is there such a thing as a must win game in December? Tonight might be the closest thing we get to that as the Phoenix Suns take on the Oklahoma City Thunder in Oklahoma City (5pm, FOX Sports AZ, 98.7 FM).
This is quite a dangerous 10-13 team. With the injuries to both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, some hypothesized that the Thunder could miss the playoffs because of how insanely competitive the Western Conference is. There weren't any definite return dates for either and I personally only expected to see Westbrook in this game a month ago, but Durant is already been back for six games already and Westbrook seven. The Thunder are 5-1 since Durant's return, but this included wins over the Sixers, Pistons (LOL), and the Timberwolves.
Despite their two superstars missing a lot of time, the Thunder have still produced the best defense in the NBA in terms of points allowed at 94.3. Their 94.7 PPG (25th) will surely go up with Durant and Westbrook back. They are simply one of the best teams in the NBA and know how important tonight's game is. They also remember the Suns thrilling win last year and will seek revenge for that in case they need any more extra motivation. A legitimate home court advantage will keep them ready to strike and I am not optimistic about the Suns chances.
Oh boy... where to start? The Suns have lost four straight and are coming off of the most demoralizing loss of the season against the Pistons, who were 3-19 before their win on Friday. The Suns have dropped several winnable games so far and perhaps the biggest thing to come out of this stretch has been how on fire the top of the Western Conference has been. The Clippers slow start has had them come out and win nine straight before last night's loss, Houston keeps winning despite injuries to a team with not a ton of depth, and Portland has 18 freaking wins already. In short, the Suns are 4 ½ games out of the 7 seed and it currently looks like they will have to battle off the Thunder for the 8 seed.
The one thing that jumped out to me in the games where the Suns looked like last year's team is that they really attacked the basket. Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe are called the Slash Brothers for a reason. They are among the elite in regards to finishing at the rim and when they are consistently bringing the ball inside they make this team better. I'm not blaming them by any means, it's just what I see. A game like the Dallas win was a perfect example of how dangerous the Suns can be. Let's hope they look that way tonight.
The Suns are 3-0 this season when Gerald Green leads all scorers. They were 9-0 when he did this last season, including his 41 point barrage against this Thunder team at home. He was ice cold on Friday so I expect a big performance out of him.
The Suns average margin of defeat when I recap games is 26. I am attempting a jinx of sorts here and hope this doesn't play any factors. It's just a warning though.
The Thunder have beaten zero current playoff teams in the West this season and have only beaten two current playoff teams in the East (Milwaukee, Cleveland).
I think the Thunder are looking for their first signature win of the season with both of their superstars back and I think this will be it. The Suns will
surely hopefully be motivated after a brutal home loss and tend to play the Thunder well. They like to show up for big games as the brutal Clippers loss showed. Durant and Westbrook will be far too much to handle though and I expect a big loss.
Just like the rest of us, the Phoenix Suns players spend too much time looking at the scoreboards and league standings. There's 70% of the season left to play, and P.J. Tucker says the Suns, who are on a four-game losing streak, need to focus on here and now rather than April.
The Phoenix Suns lost to the lowly Detroit Pistons on Friday night to extend their own losing streak to four (4) games, including the last three (3) at home to put themselves a disappointing 6-6 at home on the season.
With losses to Charlotte, Orlando and Detroit, the Suns have gone 0-3 at home against teams that combine for a 19-51 record on the season (16-51 if you don't count these games).
Tucker laid it out there, no punches pulled.
"We got to man up," he said. "Point blank. Period. We got to stop looking for excuses, we got to stop doing everything we're doing, stop looking at the standings. It's on every one of us, me included."
He said they have to stop looking at the standings.
"It's easy to do," he said. "They put it up everywhere. We got to tear it down."
The Suns expected themselves to be in the playoff picture all season long. While they are still clinging to the 8th spot in the standings despite dropping to 12-12, Tucker says it's way too early to worry about playoff seedings.
"One game at a time," he said of what the team needs to do to get back on a winning track. "We gotta stop looking at the board. Just one game at a time. Stop looking too far ahead. It's easy to do, but it's December. We got so far to go, so many games left. We just got to play game to game."
There is a perception in the locker room that the young Suns, still the second youngest playoff hopeful in the Western Conference next to New Orleans (another team losing more than they should), came into the season expecting to be better than last year because they'd gotten deeper and further developed their own skills over the summer.
While that sounds good on the surface, you still have to go out there and win the games. And these guys aren't veterans who know how to close out their own games when they are expected to. Eric Bledsoe has been a starter for less than a year full of games. Isaiah Thomas has played for a team that lost much more than it won.
Goran Dragic is the most experienced of the group, at 29 years old and a three year starter at point guard, but the Suns have so many point guards that Dragic is spending a great deal of time off the ball this season.
Everyone else has last year to hang their hats on, but nothing before that. And last year did not have adversity and expectations. In fact, none of the Suns starters has entered an NBA season with so many expectations on their shoulders to win.
The Suns are 17th in net rating (offensive vs. defensive points per possession) in the "clutch" this season, defined here as a game within 5 points in the final three minutes. That's not terrible but it's just good enough to lose. You have seen the Suns go 0-4 in such situations over the past week alone. They have the league's third highest turnover rate (20.1%) in those clutch situations.
While we all focus on the point guard situation, the Suns' front line not playing as well as last year, collectively.
Last year, the Suns primary big man rotation of Channing Frye, Markieff Morris and Miles Plumlee put up 33 points and 19 rebounds in 81 minutes per game (of 96 available) between the PF and C positions. Markieff was a power contributor off the bench, providing 13 and 6 in a reserve role.
This year, without Frye, the Suns primary big man rotation of Plumlee, Morris and Alex Len put up 27 points and 16 rebounds in 71 minutes per game (of 96 available) between the PF and C positions. Markieff is now a starter, producing marginally better than Frye did, but Len has not reprised Markieff's key bench role quite yet with only 5 and 5 off the pine.
The collective production per minute isn't far off, but Len makes a lot more mistakes than Frye did on the defensive end, and (worse) the Suns have 10 more minutes per game where a smaller player like Marcus Morris and P.J. Tucker are playing the big man spots, leaving the Suns quite undersized.
"It all correlates together," Tucker said. "We got to take people off the glass. We got a certain protocol for certain players and what we like to do, and we didn't do it. At the end of the day, we got to do it."
Of the series of steals the Suns got, led by Tucker, late in the fourth to tie up the game before Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made a three pointer to put Detroit ahead for good, Tucker said not to be impressed with that.
"That wasn't defense," he said of the steals. "That was instinctual. We didn't play defense today. That's not Suns defense. That's not what we practice."
Then Tucker reminded us how the Suns surprised everyone with 48 wins last season before bowing out of the playoff race with just a couple games to go.
"We fought tooth and nail for those  wins. None of those came easy. We fought hard every single night," Tucker.
This season? He wouldn't answer.
He said we watch the games, so we can answer our own question.
Here's the interview.
It may have been a rough week for the Suns, who went 0-4 and lost those 4 games by just a combined 14 points. However, Bledsoe did his best to keep the team competitive, as he averaged 17.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game.
I don't think we appreciate Eric Bledsoe nearly as much as we should.
After last night's rough loss to the Detroit Pistons, Dave gave the fans on this website the opportunity to rank the players and rate their performances. In typical fashion, Goran Dragic, who finished with 18 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 6 turnovers on 8-12 shooting, was given 113 likes and 22 dislikes.
On the other hand, Eric Bledsoe, who shot 6-9 from the field and finished with 16 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 turnovers, was given 53 likes and 69 dislikes.
Now, it is clear that the team did not play with much effort last night, and that few players deserved to be praised. But to me it is mind-boggling that there was such a discrepancy in support among the fans for our two backcourt stars. A European bias perhaps? After all, the article was posted at a time when many Arizonans were asleep.
And yet, I get the sense that this is still Goran Dragic's team in the minds of the fans. Hell, I've already made 2 Dragic videos in just a month. And Dragic is, after all, the one who has been with the team for half a decade now (over two stints).
But maybe it's time that we started sharing some of that affection with Eric as well. The stats are telling us that so far, he has deserved every penny of that contract extension.
Over the past 10 games, Bledsoe has averaged 19.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. Over that span, he also shot 45% from the field, 34% from deep and 90% from the free-throw line.
He is doing it all right now, and has become a supreme stat sheet stuffer. His triple-double against the Clippers several days ago (27 points, 11 rebounds and 16 assists) is further proof of what he is capable of at his best.
Are turnovers still a problem for him? Absolutely. Bledsoe is averaging 3.7 turnovers per 36 minutes, which is even more than the 3.6 turnovers he averaged in 2013-14. And while that is an ugly number, you would be hard-pressed to find other areas of his game right now to complain about.
Look at it this way. If the NBA salary cap will really be as much as $91.2 million by 2016-17 due to the new TV deal, then Bledsoe's $14 million salary that year will account for 15.35% of the cap. That is when Bledsoe will be 27, and likely in his prime.
On the NBA's current cap of $63.065 million, Ty Lawson's $11.6 million contract takes up 18.4% of the cap. That is considered a fair deal, and yet the borderline All-Star Lawson is currently shooting 40% from the field (though, to his credit, is also averaging about 16 points and 10 assists per game). If that is a fair deal, then Bledsoe is an absolute bargain.
Here are Bledsoe's highlights from the first quarter of the season. One miscellaneous but exciting stat is the fact that he has dunked the ball 9 times in only 24 games so far. Last season, he dunked just 5 times in 43 games. Bad for the knees, but good for the highlight reels I suppose.
Also, Anthony Tolliver made his way into this highlight reel by sinking a three. That's my subtle message to all of you to not be so down on Tolliver. Telling you that that was my subtle message is my not-so-subtle message that you shouldn't be so down on Tolliver.
Seriously, though. He's made 44% of his threes over the past 12 games.