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Two teams that underwent massive roster fluctuation this summer took the court Friday night. One of those teams appeared to be incorporating their additions and building continuity. The other did not.
The Suns, and especially the starters who looked like five fingers on a hand, appeared much more acclimated to their new surroundings than the visitors from Portland. It's only one game, and preseason at that, but I think it portends propitiously that Phoenix's learning curve appears to be well ahead of a team that some believed would be an adversary for positioning in the Western Conference this season. Here are some of my takeaways from the game.
Dragic was devastatingly dynamic. He was making lightning quick, crisp cuts to the basket and setting up his teammates for easy looks while displaying an arsenal of wrap around and behind the back passes. His ball handling was seamless and he gave Lillard a crash course on what to expect in this league. One particular play where Goran drove on the right side, shielded the defender and dished to Solomon Jones for an easy layup was such a quintessential example of orchestrating the offense that Dragic should have gotten an assist AND two points. He was so good at times I almost felt he was showing off.
"I know the offense, I already played that offense when I was here," said Goran after the game. "We have a lot of new players so we have to adjust and we have to give it some time, but I think it is going well."
I would say that's pretty modest based on the play against Portland.
The Suns defense on Aldridge was stifling. The Suns used a mixture of double teams and straight up defense and largely nullified Portland's best player. Aldridge was 4-13 from the field and struggled to get good positioning on the block. He was noticeably frustrated at times and it obviously got to his head when he began complaining to the referees about being
harassed and well defended fouled by the Suns. After holding DeMarcus Cousins to three baskets in the paint on Wednesday, Aldridge managed only two. That's pretty parsimonious considering the level of the competition.
Other areas of the defense were more porous. Transition defense was sluggish at times and led to some easy opportunities. Rotations were slow and the Suns were hurt by Blazer cuts to the basket.
"Offensive rebounding is still a huge concern, as is the dribble penetration," said Gentry. "We're going to have to do a better job at keeping the ball out of the paint."
I'm not overly concerned with the defensive deficiencies at this point. Many of the failings appeared to be the result of poor communication and ignorance of responsibilities. Practice will help that. What does worry me is the rebounding disparity, especially on the offensive glass. The Blazers were +8 in that category, as the Suns were bullied by rookie Meyers Leonard who grabbed seven of his own (in my opinion Leonard was the most impressive player on the floor for Portland). The Suns don't possess great size and length up front so it will be interesting whether they can instill team rebounding techniques or if these woes become pervasive.
I will be using the Beasley/Johnson shot selection tracker to monitor these players until they show that my reason for concern is unfounded. After the first game saw the dynamic duo take 21 of 24 shots from 18 feet or further from the basket, in game two it was 12 of 15. Compare that to the less athletically gifted Dudley who took four of his seven shots in the paint. That's 33 of 39 on the year. 85%. Once again, I'm talking about selection not volume.
When I asked head coach Alvin Gentry about the Beasley/Johnson shot selection against the Kings before the game he told me that he had no problem with the shots they took. "Shoot a shot that's available to you," Gentry remarked. Gentry is actually encouraging Beasley to take more shots.
However, after the game Micheal Beasley remarked, "I do like working on my post game (Beasley was working on low post moves before the game). Right now I'm just trying to learn every play from two or three different positions, but that is something I want to improve on this year is my post game."
My personal thoughts are that I'd like to see Beasley taking more shots and I'd like those shots to come closer to the basket. If he's already taking seven or eight from outside, all he has to do is match that from inside and he will be where Gentry wants him on attempts and he should get to the line more too.
The tracker will continue to monitor this situation.
Luke Zeller, Ike Diogu and Solomon Jones
The players auditioning for roster spots were impressive in the game. Gentry seemed to agree. When asked about what he was seeing from the training camp invites Gentry responded, "I think they've done a good job in practice. The thing that's encouraging, or discouraging (that they were outplaying regulars), is that they dominated practice today (Friday). I wanted to get them some minutes on the floor. They did a good job. They executed pretty well and took advantage of the minutes they got."
Morris followed up a 16 point seven rebound effort in the first preseason game with 14 and five against Portland. His assertiveness from the summer league seems to have carried over into the preseason. On Friday night the fouls did too. Markieff's minutes were limited in the game due to the fact that he picked up four quick fouls in the first 3:47 he was on the court. Morris has shown me enough that I wouldn't be surprised if he led the team in scoring and rebounding off the bench this season. I can envision him as an anchor for that unit, but he won't be able to provide stability if he continues to be plagued by fouls. He needs to be more attentive and know when to initiate or shy away from contact. He was wearing out the referees whistle in his sparse first half minutes.
When asked about what he needs to improve Markieff replied, "Staying consistent, playing hard and being a team player." Those are all good goals, Markieff, but don't forget about staying out of foul trouble. That's important too.
Morris also responded to a question about him attacking the basket during the game by saying, "We have a lot of jump shooters. We need to get to the foul line. We can't bail teams out with jump shots."
So Gentry wants more threes, but Morris wants to attack the basket. Beasley needs to shoot more jump shots, but so far that's all he's taking. Meanwhile he's practicing post moves before the game. The mantra is always take the shot that's available, but 18-22 foot jumpers seem to be available with alarming frequency. The preseason is a felicitous time to iron out all these issues. I can't wait to see what the next game brings.