Goran Dragi?'s first appearance in international games this summer gives Slovenia the edge over the resilient New Zealand in a friendly game in Kaunas (Lithuania).

Not surprisingly, Gogi did not start the game. The reason being two-fold: he's limited to 25 minutes per game for the friendlies and the starting five is sort of used to each other. Still, we're all looking forward to some Dragon magic.

Box Score

Sovenia - New Zealand
80:74 (14:13, 13:24, 23:9, 30:28)

G. Dragi? 16, Z. Dragi? 13, D. Lorbek 12, Muri? 11; Webster 23.

First period

Starting he game, nothing really pretty, a few made shots on both sides, quite a few unforced errors, not a lot of team-play. Basically, the ball is bouncing around like a hot potato. Slovenians are relying mostly on the 3-point shot and half-court offense, not their best point, as they are best in transition and playing fast. So far, the speed leaves a lot to be desired. Although Domen Lorbek did just use the best Dragonshake I ever saw him do, but the defense is still way too slow.

Here's hoping Gogi can make a difference, he just entered with his bro, 2 minutes to go in the first period. And immediately the defense picks up, forces a bad shot and a good assist in transition. It's a different team with the Dragi? brothers playing, 1 minute to go Slovenia is down by one. Goran's first step-back went wide but the last attack was classic Gogi- PnR on the 3-point line and Goran attacking the help with a strong move, pushing the defending center off in mid-air and finishing with a lay-up. After first, SLO:NZ 14:13 (don't laugh, it's normal(ish) for an international friendly).

Second period

Defense is still the better part of Slovenia's game, while offensively they keep relying on half-court sets and forced shots while giving the ball away. A big problem is also the physicality and height of the NZ's players, as SLO doesn't really have a strong paint presence. Goran is being hounded by the opposing players and as a result he missed his patented step-back, again. Plus, everything else Slovenians are doing is basically a 3-point shot, which is not falling. Maybe a time-out for the Slovenians will help.

5-minutes int the second period, not much to like on the SLO side, except for some good transition defense, but we are being man-handled everywhere else. And Goran missed a wide-open three, off the backboard. I guess the line is too close to the rim. New Zealand is playing very well., spacing the floor and then hitting the three or going hard to the rim, since there's no real defensive threat there and 8 minutes in the score is +11 for NZ who is doing a great job closing the paint since the 3-pt shot is not falling for Slovenians.

Two good shots by Edo Muri? and the score is only +7 for NZ.Never mind, it's a 10-point game again at the break. Gogi is not playing which is just as well, as the rest of the team is playing like a bunch of hungover logs. (Sorry for the outburst, I sometimes get carried away). Maybe things pick up in the second half, especially the transition offense, which is Slovenia's strongest weapon and was non-existent in the first two periods. Slovenia trails 37:27 at half-time, and New Zealand is playing really well.

Third period

Some life at last, from the ever-active Dragon jr. (Zoran) who first forced a foul then made a great pass to a rolling Omi? who actually dunked it. But you'll be happy to know the defense is looking up and there seems to be life yet in the Slovenians. some good D and quick transition dor an open 3-point shot, and it's a 3-point game. 37:34 for NZ, who also committed 5 fouls in the first two minutes and did not score a bucket until 3 minutes in. Goran made a great bounce-pass to a rolling Omi?, but his ball-handling skills fumbled that chance. The defense is still working well, but Slovenians just can't finish at the rim. Goran is mostly passing the ball and it's obvious he can hit anyone at anytime dead-on, but the finish is still lacking, though to be frank, NZ is being quite aggressive and fouling every shot at the rim. 5 minutes in it's 41:37 for NZ and Goran picked up his first foul.

And then Goran shows his skills finishing through contact surrounded by 3 opposing players and then assisting beautifully with a no-look behind the back bounce pass for a easy lay up. And just like that it's 44:43 and a time-out. (Honorable mention to a guy in the audience that could moonlight as the Suns Gorilla)

Slovenians come out with a small line-up, playing fast transition and good defense. 2 minutes left in the third, Slovenia takes the lead for the first time since the first quarter, it's 46:48. The driving force for the Slovenia is Zoran Dragi?, he's everywhere, and really aggressive.

At the end of third it's 46:50, Slovenia won the period with 9:23!

Fourth period

Some mistakes on both sides, SLO down by 2 again and Gogi's back, connecting on his first two attempts, and leaving the distinct impression he's 40% faster than anyone on the floor. There's no real defense being played in the first few minutes, it's let-it-fly time, obviously. But New Zealand is getting the better of it. And Goran answers right back, his first 3-point shot. and Slovenia is back up by 1 point. Just for a moment though as Gogi picks up his 2nd foul after a missed shot. Zoran Dragi? is still everywhere, imagine a white PJ Tucker, on every loose ball. Goran missed a step-back and failed to finish through contact on the next attempt, but he did force a foul and made both free-throws.

Another wide open three by Gogi who's putting the team on his back with 2 minutes to go but the score is tied at 69. A counter-attack by the Dragi? brothers ends with a lay-up, Goran has 16 points already, Zoran 12. Some good D and Slovenia is up by 5 with a minute left to play. After a made three, NZ is only down by 2 and my voice is raised, yelling at the tv after Zoran missed a lay-up.

15 seconds to go, Balaži? made both free-throws for Slovenia and it's +4. A great effort on D leaves Domen Lorbek alone under the basket and the final score is 74:80.

Summary

Slovenia won after a bad start, tightening on D and running and spacing the floor much better in the second half powered by the Dragi? dynamic duo (Goran had 16 points and Zoran had 13). The game itself was not pretty by any standard, but it did show why Gogi is invaluable for the national team, as the game switches a gear when he's playing.

More on the stats of the game and some quotes from the players will follow in another article.

Goran Dragi?'s first appearance in international games this summer gives Slovenia the edge over the resilient New Zealand in a friendly game in Kaunas (Lithuania).

Not surprisingly, Gogi did not start the game. The reason being two-fold: he's limited to 25 minutes per game for the friendlies and the starting five is sort of used to each other. Still, we're all looking forward to some Dragon magic.

Box Score

Sovenia - New Zealand
80:74 (14:13, 13:24, 23:9, 30:28)

G. Dragi? 18, Z. Dragi? 13, D. Lorbek 12, Muri? 11; Webster 23.

First period

Starting he game, nothing really pretty, a few made shots on both sides, quite a few unforced errors, not a lot of team-play. Basically, the ball is bouncing around like a hot potato. Slovenians are relying mostly on the 3-point shot and half-court offense, not their best point, as they are best in transition and playing fast. So far, the speed leaves a lot to be desired. Although Domen Lorbek did just use the best Dragonshake I ever saw him do, but the defense is still way too slow.

Here's hoping Gogi can make a difference, he just entered with his bro, 2 minutes to go in the first period. And immediately the defense picks up, forces a bad shot and a good assist in transition. It's a different team with the Dragi? brothers playing, 1 minute to go Slovenia is down by one. Goran's first step-back went wide but the last attack was classic Gogi- PnR on the 3-point line and Goran attacking the help with a strong move, pushing the defending center off in mid-air and finishing with a lay-up. After first, SLO:NZ 14:13 (don't laugh, it's normal(ish) for an international friendly).

Second period

Defense is still the better part of Slovenia's game, while offensively they keep relying on half-court sets and forced shots while giving the ball away. A big problem is also the physicality and height of the NZ's players, as SLO doesn't really have a strong paint presence. Goran is being hounded by the opposing players and as a result he missed his patented step-back, again. Plus, everything else Slovenians are doing is basically a 3-point shot, which is not falling. Maybe a time-out for the Slovenians will help.

5-minutes int the second period, not much to like on the SLO side, except for some good transition defense, but we are being man-handled everywhere else. And Goran missed a wide-open three, off the backboard. I guess the line is too close to the rim. New Zealand is playing very well., spacing the floor and then hitting the three or going hard to the rim, since there's no real defensive threat there and 8 minutes in the score is +11 for NZ who is doing a great job closing the paint since the 3-pt shot is not falling for Slovenians.

Two good shots by Edo Muri? and the score is only +7 for NZ.Never mind, it's a 10-point game again at the break. Gogi is not playing which is just as well, as the rest of the team is playing like a bunch of hungover logs. (Sorry for the outburst, I sometimes get carried away). Maybe things pick up in the second half, especially the transition offense, which is Slovenia's strongest weapon and was non-existent in the first two periods. Slovenia trails 37:27 at half-time, and New Zealand is playing really well.

Third period

Some life at last, from the ever-active Dragon jr. (Zoran) who first forced a foul then made a great pass to a rolling Omi? who actually dunked it. But you'll be happy to know the defense is looking up and there seems to be life yet in the Slovenians. some good D and quick transition dor an open 3-point shot, and it's a 3-point game. 37:34 for NZ, who also committed 5 fouls in the first two minutes and did not score a bucket until 3 minutes in. Goran made a great bounce-pass to a rolling Omi?, but his ball-handling skills fumbled that chance. The defense is still working well, but Slovenians just can't finish at the rim. Goran is mostly passing the ball and it's obvious he can hit anyone at anytime dead-on, but the finish is still lacking, though to be frank, NZ is being quite aggressive and fouling every shot at the rim. 5 minutes in it's 41:37 for NZ and Goran picked up his first foul.

And then Goran shows his skills finishing through contact surrounded by 3 opposing players and then assisting beautifully with a no-look behind the back bounce pass for a easy lay up. And just like that it's 44:43 and a time-out. (Honorable mention to a guy in the audience that could moonlight as the Suns Gorilla)

Slovenians come out with a small line-up, playing fast transition and good defense. 2 minutes left in the third, Slovenia takes the lead for the first time since the first quarter, it's 46:48. The driving force for the Slovenia is Zoran Dragi?, he's everywhere, and really aggressive.

At the end of third it's 46:50, Slovenia won the period with 9:23!

Fourth period

Some mistakes on both sides, SLO down by 2 again and Gogi's back, connecting on his first two attempts, and leaving the distinct impression he's 40% faster than anyone on the floor. There's no real defense being played in the first few minutes, it's let-it-fly time, obviously. But New Zealand is getting the better of it. And Goran answers right back, his first 3-point shot. and Slovenia is back up by 1 point. Just for a moment though as Gogi picks up his 2nd foul after a missed shot. Zoran Dragi? is still everywhere, imagine a white PJ Tucker, on every loose ball. Goran missed a step-back and failed to finish through contact on the next attempt, but he did force a foul and made both free-throws.

Another wide open three by Gogi who's putting the team on his back with 2 minutes to go but the score is tied at 69. A counter-attack by the Dragi? brothers ends with a lay-up, Goran has 16 points already, Zoran 12. Some good D and Slovenia is up by 5 with a minute left to play. After a made three, NZ is only down by 2 and my voice is raised, yelling at the tv after Zoran missed a lay-up.

15 seconds to go, Balaži? made both free-throws for Slovenia and it's +4. A great effort on D leaves Domen Lorbek alone under the basket and the final score is 74:80.

Summary

Slovenia won after a bad start, tightening on D and running and spacing the floor much better in the second half powered by the Dragi? dynamic duo (Goran had 18 points and Zoran had 13). The game itself was not pretty by any standard, but it did show why Gogi is invaluable for the national team, as the game switches a gear when he's playing.

More on the stats of the game and some quotes from the players will follow in another article.

After hurtling through the first "half" of the season to reach the All-Star Break, the Phoenix Suns will enter the final stretch of the season with just 28 games left to make the playoffs.

End of the home-heavy stretch

After playing 24 of the first 40 games on the road, the Suns enjoy a long, long time at home before the stretch run after the All Star Break.

The Suns spend much of late January and February in the friendly confines of US Airways Center, beginning with a franchise record eight straight home games (over 19 days) and a run up to the All-Star Break that includes more national TV games than all of last season, the Suns will come into the final stretch ready to spread their wings.

Counting in the All-Star Break, the Suns will have only played three road games in 39 days versus 11 home games. That's about to change again, once the break is over.

Post-All Star Road Trip (10 games, 7 on road)

Coming out of the break, with whatever team is left (ie. the trade deadline), the Suns will get back on the road to test their mettle.

The list of opponents could be very difficult to beat, but a playoff-caliber team ought to be able to win more than they lose. Those Suns fans outside the Phoenix area will continue to enjoy many of the Suns games on TV, with 5 games on either NBATV or TNT.

That TNT game at OKC will be the last Suns game on TNT until late April.

Assuming the Suns are in the playoff chase, with say a 32-22 record to start this stretch, a 5-5 split would put them at 37-27. A 6-4 finish here would put them 12 over, at 38-26, just in time for a nice home stretch.

Back home (10 games, 9 at home)

In this crazy, unbalanced season, the Suns now get a home stand of 9 games out of 10 in US Airways Center. There's only one back-to-back in the whole set, and of course that's against the Texas twosome of Chandler Parsons employers.

Here, the Suns need to finish 7-3 at least, before the season-ending gauntlet of roadies. Going 7-3 would raise their record to about 45-29.

Road grind to end it (8 games, 6 on road)

Just like last season, the Suns finish it up with mostly road games that could derail their playoff hopes. Read it and fret.

Six of the opponents in the final eight games could easily be playoff opponents, also fighting for positioning in the Wild West. The Suns will have to win 5 of 8 to get that 50-win mark. Tall task. It doesn't help that they play Dallas once again on the back end of a back-to-back, and most of these on the enemy's court.

There you have it, Suns fans. A way for the Suns to get that needed 50 wins to ensure a playoff spot.

ESPN’s Summer Forecast series this week released a long list of NBA writers’ opinions to focus on where teams will finish the 2014-15 regular season. Wouldn’t you know it, the...

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The last thing the Phoenix Suns want is to be out of the playoff picture by Christmas. But a road heavy schedule, including 24 road games vs. 16 home games, will provide a big test to their playoff aspirations.

Opening stretch (9 games, 7 at home)

The Suns will need a hot start to the season before a long road stretch. Seven of the first nine games of the season are at home, and nearly each one is intriguing for one reason or another.

There isn't a dud in the bunch. In the first week of the season, the Suns see the Lakers twice. It's always fun to play (and beat) the Lakers. They should have Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash in their lineup (early enough not to be re-injured yet), but won't be sporting young Kendall Marshall who was waived in the offseason for cap space.

Also in this season-opening stretch, new guard Isaiah Thomas gets to face his former teammates in Sacramento, sure to be a bitter-sweet game for him.

The Suns get to see how Steve Kerr, their former GM, can coach a team. He's fortunate (smart) to be coaching an ultra-talented team that could finish in the top 4 of the West despite not landing Kevin Love for table scraps.

Road Grind - Part A (13 games, 10 on road)

After starting with 7 of 9 at home, the Suns then embark on a really long stretch of mostly road games. You'll hear the team saying that it's a great opportunity to bond with one another, being away from home so much. Sometimes that's true, sometimes it's not.

But the truth is that few NBA teams put together a winning road record on the season, so this could be a tough period for fans watching the playoff seedings.

First up, the Suns play 10 of their next 13 on the road, starting with a season-long 6-game roadie.

There are definitely some winnable games here, but the stretch is bookended by tough road games against the Clippers sandwiching a plethora of games against West teams that will be tough.

A brief respite (4 games, 3 at home)

After that grind, the Suns get a brief break with 3 of 4 at home in what might be seen as the cream puff part of their home schedule.

Still, the Thunder are right in the middle here. But homies against the Heat (likely missing Wade by now), the Pistons (likely still fighting for a good lineup) and the Bucks (Kendall Marshall comes home!) should be worth a couple of needed wins, if not all three.

They will need to win 3 of 4 here, considering the road gets real tough again.

Another grind (14 games, 11 on road)

This grind shouldn't be as difficult as the first one, despite all the road games.

Much of this 14 game sked is winnable, with only a few killer games to contend with. If the Suns haven't fallen apart by now, this stretch should help them build confidence for the rest of the season.

By now, the team has played 24 of 40 games on the road, meaning that the second half of the season will be heavily weighted at home.

Getting stronger (14 games, 11 at home, 5 on national TV)

Finally, the season will starting hitting it's stride for the Suns on national TV. After only 1 national TV game in the first 40, the Suns see a stretch of 5 in 12 games.

This stretch also includes the Suns longest home game stretch in years. 8 straight at home.

It took a while, and hopefully after playing so many road games the Suns are still in the thick of the playoff picture, but finally TNT and ESPN are ready to see a lot of Suns games.

Let's hope the Suns get up for the games as much as last year. The Suns went 3-1 on ESPN games last year, likely an important fact during this year's scheduling.

All-Star Break/Trade Deadline

The Tuesday, February 10 game against the Rockets is the last game the Suns will play for the next 10 days - a new tweak on this year's schedule to give guys more time off. Specifically, the players in the All-Star games and/or participating in All-Star events have complained that they don't get any needed down time. After 54 games, everyone will need a bit of a break.

Let's hope the Suns have 1 or 2 players in the actual All-Star game this year (Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe are candidates), as well as participants in the Rising Stars Challenge (T.J. Warren, Tyler Ennis, Alex Len, Archie Goodwin), dunk contest (Gerald Green? Goodwin?), three-point shooting contest (Green?) and Skills Challenge (Dragic?).

The All-Star Break, especially as extended to 10 days, allows teams to negotiate their deadline deals. Who knows who the Suns will be trading/acquiring during this period. It all depends on that first 54 games.

If the Suns are in playoff position, it's unlikely they will shake up the core of the team right here. They didn't do it last year.

But if the road-heavy opening schedule sinks the Suns in the first half, this might be time for a little movement.

Part two coming tomorrow

This post is already getting long, and we all have ADD as we read the internets. So, I'll stop here and let you chew on this for a day.


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