School of Hard Knocks Preps Suns for Future
“If you play hard something good is going to happen.”
Those were the words spoken by Goran Dragic outside of his locker after a 102-100 loss at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday night. It also happens to be the Suns motto moving forward.
When your team has a 23-48 record in March, the game becomes as much about learning as it is about anything else. It’s about learning what your roster is truly made of as competitors. It’s about learning how to play as a team and learning the way you have to play in order to win. Sunday night’s game was a masters course in all of the above.
“We didn’t win the game but there were situations that we won throughout the game that will help us grow,” Coach Hunter told the media. “We have to keep fighting that way. We have to keep putting ourselves in tight situations so we can learn to be winners.”
Sure, in most situations there are no moral victories in sports, but in a season where your team has taken some serious lumps, proving you still have fight in you and learning how to exert it night in and night out is key.
“We of course we’re disappointed and hurt that we lost, but if we could have that type of effort every single night we’ll take it,” Hunter said. “We’ll take it and we’ll walk with our heads held high because we fought. That’s the message. That’s what we have to do every single night, every single practice we have to fight. Tonight, everybody who played fought in their own way.”
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That fight showed up on the defensive end and on the boards for the Suns. They won the battle on the glass 48-44 despite missing starting center Marcin Gortat and backup center Jermaine O’Neal while facing an all-star big man in Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez. That was thanks in part to Markieff Morris’ 15 rebounds and Dragic’s nine. They also had more blocks than the Nets.
For the Suns, when they can get defensive like Coach Hunter has preached since taking the helm, good things happen on both ends of the floor.
“The defense led to the easy run outs and us going down and executing our offense,” said swingman Wesley Johnson. “When we stopped them on the defensive end it carried over. We got our energy and confidence up because we were stopping them.”
Johnson was a big benefactor of the team’s great defense in the third quarter. After entering the quarter trailing by 12 points, he put on a three point display in transition. He hit four in a row to close out the quarter and had 17 points overall. His efforts combined with Dragic’s passing gave the Suns a one point lead.
The third quarter also proved just how important the fans at US Airways Center can be to the Suns’ young roster.
“The crowd definitely boosted a lot of the energy for the whole team,” Johnson said. “Everybody was feeding off of it. They were getting behind us and we were making plays on the defensive end and the offensive end. It was carrying over to both sides.”
Possibly the biggest lesson learned on the night though was that Dragic and forward P.J. Tucker are the engines that make the Suns go.
“Goran and PJ were unbelievable tonight,” Coach Hunter explained. “Every single minute. We are asking PJ to guard point guards, two guards, forwards, power forwards and sometimes centers. He just goes out and he leaves it out there. You can respect that. You can live with that. The same thing with Goran. Every single night he goes out there and he brings it. With those guys leading us to the future that is the example we want.”
Dragic’s effort led to a career night with 31 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, becoming the first Sun to accomplish such a feat since Kevin Johnson’s 32 points, 14 assists and 9 rebounds in 1993, but the guard remained as humble as ever. He tries to lead and teach his teammates by example. One look at his face with its large bruise on his right cheek proves that. So do his actions on the court and his words after it.
“I was just trying to play as hard as possible,” he said. “It doesn’t matter about statistics, I try to win games and unfortunately we lost...I’d rather have a win than a triple double.”
The Slovenian point guard, who set a career-high with his fifth straight game with 10 or more assists, felt his teammates answered the call and followed his lead.
“It’s an improvement,” he said of the team’s effort. “Especially how the guys were playing. Everybody was fighting for the loose balls on defense and the offense was pretty good. It’s tough if you don’t win the games. You can say good effort but everybody wants to try to win. We have to learn from that. We have to try to establish our team to play every night like that.”
In a season that has had more downs than ups, learning how to improve and move forward is key to future success.
As Winston Churchill said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Hunter and his staff are taking strides to ensure their club doesn’t repeat the same mistakes next season that have occurred this year.
“I hope the message that we’re trying to deliver is clear,” he said. “We’ll keep pounding away and chipping away at being a winner until we get it.”
The message is that hard work pays off. The Suns seem to be learning it. Even if sometimes, like Sunday, it comes the hard way.