Finishing The Right Way

Wes Johnson had a team-high 15 points the last time the Suns visited Houston.
(NBAE/Getty Images)
As the Suns' season winds down with just five more game and the playoffs out of the picture, Head Coach Lindsey Hunter is finding ways to keep his team engaged.

He’s made it clear that players are always playing for their jobs, so constant improvement is necessary. But the notion isn’t just a one-way street; Hunter is expecting the same from himself.

“Yeah, just focus and continue to be better myself,” Hunter said of his focus for the rest of the season. “I’m going to challenge myself and be challenged by my guys. Then I’m going to come back and challenge them, and they know that by now.”

Not only does the coach want his team working hard in practices, shoot-arounds, games and during the odd hours, but he also wants them to enjoy it.

Drawing from 17 years of experience playing in the NBA, Hunter can talk about how hard he worked to remain in the league. He expects that out of his players. But he also expects success for them after they put in the work, which is where the enjoyment will come in.

“The season is not over,” Hunter said. “Just because we’re not going to the playoffs doesn’t mean the season is over. We have five games left, and this is what we get paid to do.

“You should want to compete and enjoy it. You never get these years back, so you have to enjoy them.”

Prior to the team’s 5 p.m. game tonight in Houston, Hunter has stressed the enjoyment of the game to his players. Here are four other things to keep an eye on during this game against the Rockets:

  • Familiar Faces

    The scouting department for the Houston Rockets should have a pretty easy job preparing for this version of the Suns.

    Not only have the two teams played two games against each other already, but the Suns boast of three current players who were in Houston just a season ago.

    This past offseason, Phoenix first brought back point guard Goran Dragic, who played for Head Coach Kevin McHale and the Rockets last season.

    Then the Suns added power forward Luis Scola, who had played in Houston for all five of his seasons in the NBA before being amnestied.

    Finally, the Suns’ front office added forward Marcus Morris via a trade with the Rockets.

    Prior to the first time he returned to Houston as a vistor in March, Scola discussed what the situation meant to him.

    “It was a place where I spent a lot of time, and I’ll be happy to see some familiar faces,” Scola told Suns.com. “There are some emotions there when you’re playing your former team, but I’m just going to go out and try to make it as normal as possible.”

  • Missing Morris

    In 11 of his first 15 games with the Phoenix Suns, forward Marcus Morris was a mainstay in Hunter’s rotation, and he was a consistent provider of instant offense off the bench.

    During one stretch, from Feb. 27-March 11, Morris reached double figures in five out of six games, including two games in which he reached 16 points. He sunk 9-of-16 three-point attempts over that span, too.

    Starting on March 22, Markieff Morris’ twin brother has seen his role with the Suns lessen, and Hunter said the acclimation process to a new team is part of the reason why.

    “I thought he played really well at the beginning, and then he had a couple situations where he lost a little confidence,” Hunter said. “He’s getting to be familiar with everything. He came at a time where we were changing so much that I’m not shocked or disappointed that he’s gone through a little bit of a struggle.”

    The coach also took on part of the responsibility himself.

    “As a coach you always try to put your guys in a position to succeed, so maybe it was, in part, me not doing a good enough job of getting him in that situation,” Hunter said. “And that’s something I’m working on, too.”

  • Second-Half Streaking

    No Suns are enjoying the second-half of the season more than Dragic and Wes Johnson.

    In 22 games, the team’s point guard has improved in just about every relevant statistical category, despite his role with the team remaining unchanged.

    Dragic is averaging two more points per game (16.0), two and half more assists per game (8.9) and one more rebound per game (3.8). Dragic has also had 11 games in which he has recorded 10 or more assists, compared to the five times he accomplished that in 51 games before the All-Star break.

    For Johnson, it’s simply a matter of being given a chance. In the team’s first 53 games before All-Star weekend, he played in 21 games and never scored in double digits.

    Since the break, he’s played in all 24 games and has averaged 11.8 points per game. He’s reached double figures in scoring 13 times and has even reached at least 18 points six times.

  • The Unfamiliar Face

    While James Harden and Jeremy Lin are the usual suspects for Houston, the last game these two teams played actually starred an unfamiliar name: Donatas Motiejunas.

    The 22-year old rookie out of Lithuania recorded a career high 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting to spark the Rockets’ win over the Suns on March 13.

    The 7-footer also drained two three-pointers in that game, showcasing the outside-in kind of game he possesses.