Keys to the Second Half of the Suns' Season
February 19, 2014
By Matt Petersen, Suns.com
The surprise start to 2013-14 – complete with matching Las Vegas’ predicted total of wins for the season before the new year struck – is over.
The middle-of-the-season trek – which included knee surgery for Eric Bledsoe, a four-game losing streak and five-game winning streak – is done.
With the All-Star break in the rear-view mirror and the playoff race set to begin in earnest, here are five things to keep an eye on when it comes to the Suns.
Shooting comes and goes, but Phoenix has shown their stroke can stay – or leave – for several games at a time.
During the Suns’ 1-4 road trip in January, Phoenix connected on just 39 percent of their shots, including a woeful 32.7 percent from three-point range.
Two weeks later, they were ripping off a five-game win streak behind 47.9 percent shooting and a scorching 41.7 percent clip from downtown.
Such stretches can make or break the Suns’ place in the standings, where they’re fighting Golden State, Dallas and Memphis for the last three playoff spots out West.
NBA players always talk about “getting better” and “working on their game.”
Goran Dragic has taken that concept to an extreme, particularly on a month-to-month basis.
November: 17.4 ppg, 7.1 apg, 2.8 rpg, 46.6 FG%, 32.5 3FG%
December: 18.8 ppg, 4.5 apg , 2.8 rpg, 49.1 FG%, 36.2 3FG%
January: 22.3 ppg, 6.6 apg, 4.3 rpg, 52.2 FG%, 46.0 3FG%
February: 24.2 ppg, 6.4 apg, 4.6 rpg, 58.2 FG%, 54.2 3FG% (through the All-Star break)
While the upward trend would suggest even better things await in March and April, simply having Dragic keep up his recent pace would greatly help Phoenix in its race to the regular season finish line.
Suns Head Coach Jeff Hornacek said last week he expects Eric Bledsoe back “before the end of the season.”
That would be huge for Phoenix, since the team is 16-8 when both he and Dragic start and finish a game together.
Bledsoe (18.0 ppg, 5.8 apg, 4.3 rpg, 1.5 spg) gives Hornacek the luxury of constantly having at least one elite-level playmaker and ball-handler on the floor (Goran Dragic being the other). That raises the level of play of the other four players on the floor, a combination that wore opponents down earlier in the season.
Hornacek has reiterated there will be no attempt to rush Bledsoe back for the sole purpose of a playoff push, not when he and Suns management envision his potential long-term future in a Suns’ uniform.
That cautious-but-encouraging approach could pay dividends when the Suns need it most.
When it comes to over playing time and crunch time minutes, Hornacek has hardly proved to harbor favorites.
That equal opportunity is most pronounced in the frontcourt, where the most productive players are rewarded on a night-to-night basis. Miles Plumlee, Channing Frye and Markieff Morris have all alternated between being heroes and fans in the closing minutes depending on 1) matchups or 2) their respective energy on any given night.
It’s a revolving door Hornacek constantly keeps tabs on in order to maintain balance on the floor. One night he may need shot-blocking (Plumlee). Another, shooting (Frye). A different game, mid-range and post-ups (Markieff Morris).
What has made the arrangement work is each player’s willingness to look to the team’s well-being over personal preference. Consistency is the next step, but for now, Hornacek will work with what he has, knowing the team-first attitude allows him to adjust whenever and however often he wants.
The Suns’ primary source of offense is the fast break, where they earn nearly 20 percent of their offense every game.
In general, transition points dry up in the end of games, which forces Phoenix to rely on half-court sources of offense.
The results have been mixed, the Suns average a league-worst 6.4 points per game. That’s offset by their defense, which only gives up 6.6 points to opponents during the same span.
With over 50 games and 30 wins under their collective belt, however, the Suns are starting to show glimpses of the late-game chops that come with familiarity and experience (see Tuesday’s overtime win over Denver).
If Hornacek and his players can improve on the .500 winning percentage they have in such late-game scenarios, Phoenix will be that much more prepared for possible playoff drama.
Phoenix struggled to apply Jeff Hornacek’s run-first offense.
The Suns slowly grasped the idea, however, before peaking in December with a Pace of 100.31 possessions per 48 minutes. That number has gone down since then, dropping to 98.07 in January and 97.53 through the first half of February.
Again, Phoenix thrives when they get the ball in the open court. That December peak also coincides with the best stretch of Eric Bledsoe’s short time in Phoenix before he went down with a knee injury.
If the Suns can rediscover their fifth gear, with or without Bledsoe, they’ll be better positioned to enforce their style of play regardless of the opponent.