Well, wow. Some All-Star Weekend, huh? I hope you enjoyed the 15 minutes of Miles Plumlee and
43.2 20 seconds of Goran Dragić (Suck it, Reggie Jackson!). On the Bright SideTM, there's a whole lot of awesome Suns action to look forward to and back at. Let's polish off our first half review and move onward to this most unexpected playoff push!
The Suns Don't Know How To Tank
Many pundits, including several on this site, predicted the Suns to T-A-N-K this season. As we covered, the front office had traded away almost all the team's veterans in favor of draft picks and youth or spare parts. A bright future was on the horizon, but it was at least a season away, if not two. Expectations were being managed carefully.
But lo, Jeff Hornacek and the guys on the court had other ideas. The Suns opened up the season with a big win at home against the highly touted Portland Trailblazers. Those managed expectations went almost straight out the window. Goran Dragić and Eric Bledsoe combined for 48 points, 15 assists, 13 rebounds, and 2 steals. As promising as that combination was, it might not even have been the story of the game. Something called "Miles Plumlee" uncorked a spectacular double-double to the tune of 18 points and 15 rebounds. Did the Phoenix Suns finally have their center of the future... and he wasn't from Ukraine? Furthermore, the Suns smothered the Blazers, holding them to 40.7 shooting and pounding them on the boards 47-39. Fans might not have bought in entirely based on this game, but it was clear that the players had.
If Bledsoe hadn't won over hearts and minds with that first win, he certainly did it with his second. A somewhat ugly back-and-forth game versus the Utah Jazz featured the best and worst of the Suns' season to come: clutch play by and injuries to the Suns backcourt. Dragić left the game early after bruising his face in a collision with P.J. Tucker. Bledsoe simply said "Everybody, chill. I got this." He calmly led the team with 18 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 steals. Oh, and an ice-cold 3-pointer in Gordon Hayward's face with .7 seconds left in regulation to seal the 87-84 win. The future had officially been ignited.
Or Maybe They Do
The Suns followed up the 2 promising wins with their worst stretch of the season, prompting doubts and dreams of Andrew Wiggins/Julius Randle/Jabari Parker again. Their first loss came in a close game (a 2013-14 Suns hallmark) against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The game featured the return of Russell Westbrook and the continuing abuse of Goran Dragić who sprained his ankle in the third quarter.
Bledsoe and the Suns stepped up admirably in The Dragon's absence. They managed to go 2-1 while Dragic nursed his ankle. And that one loss only came by 3 points to some team from San Antonio. Markieff Morris was particularly impressive over this stretch, putting up 23 points and 12 rebounds in the loss to the Spurs and a career high 28 points vs. Denver. Goran Dragic would return for the fourth game of the week, a win against the Pelicans. Markieff garnered Western Conference Player of the Week honors for his efforts which included a simply insane 69.8 field goal percentage. At 5-2, the future was looking bright for the stunning Suns.
But the basketball gods had other plans. For the first and only time this season, Phoenix dropped 4 in a row to bring their record to 5-6. The good news was that the losses came by a combined 13 points. The bad news was that 1 of them was to the struggling Brooklyn Nets, 2 of them were to the awful Sacramento Kings and that Eric Bledsoe suffered apparently the worst bruised shin in the history of the NBA. He would ultimately miss 6 games spanning 2 weeks, including the back-to-back losses to the Kings.
No Bledsoe, No Problem: Part One
Phoenix treaded water with out Bledsoe, going 3-3 while he recovered. As we all know, it would end up being good practice for the second half of the season. On the eve of his return, the Suns opened a massive can of whoop-ass on the Portland Trailblazers for the second time in the young season, overcoming a 16 point first half deficit to win 120-106 behind 31 points and 10 assists from future All-Star Goran Dragic and 25 points from Channing Frye.
Despite Bledsoe's return, the Suns managed only a split in back-to-back games with Utah Jazz to close out the month of November. But Phoenix was about to put the pedal to the metal and the mediocrity of win one-lose one ball behind them.
The Suns Shine Hot in December
December started with a wake-up call to Phoenix in the form of 19-point manhandling by the Memphis Grizzlies. Normally a loss to the Grizz would be totally understandable. But this was no normal loss as Phoenix was at nearly full strength (missing Alex Len and Emeka Okafor) and Memphis was without both Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. What the what?! After a good first half by the Purple Gang, Memphis owned the Suns in the second, putting up 64 points to the Suns meager 37. At 9-9, the Suns worst fears were beginning to materialize: they were too good to tank and too bad to make the playoffs.
But somehow they flipped the script. Before you could say "15th overall draft pick", the Suns rattled off a 5-game winning streak, including a revenge game against Sacramento and big wins against the Western Conference contending Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors.
The Suns gave fans a December to remember, notching a 10-3 record. Their only losses were to playoff teams in Memphis, San Antonio and Golden State. DragonBlade was firing on all cylinders, Miles Plumlee was putting up a near double-double every night,, P.J. Tucker was hustling and sinking corner 3s, Gerald Green and Channing Frye were providing long-range support for their slashing back court teammates and Marcus and Markieff Morris were taking turns doing work off the bench. Sure, the Suns weren't going to play .769 ball for the rest of the season, but at 19-11, they didn't need to for a shot at the 8-seed.
The Suns capped 2013 with a 107-88 blow-out win against the Eric Bledsoes former team, the Los Angeles Clippers in Los Angeles. After what Chris Paul called "a good ole-fashioned butt-whipping", Suns fans looked forward to a Happy New Year!
2014: The Year of the Dragon
January started a lot like December: with a loss to the Grizzlies, who at least had the decency to be at full strength for this game. The Suns were not. It turned out that the victory over the Clippers came with a price. Suns' star-in-the-making Eric Bledsoe would be out for at least a week with a knee sprain. But it's only a week, right? What could possible go wrong?
Everything, it turns out. Phoenix proceeded to lose 6 of its next 9 games. The wins were not encouraging as they came against a successfully tanking Philadelphia 76ers squad, a 1-point squeaker vs. the Minnesota Timberwolves, and a 7-point victory over a Los Angeles Lakers team that was far, far worse than anyone could have imagined.
But there were a couple of bright spots: Phoenix signed former fan favorite Leandro Barbosa to a 10-day contract and would ultimately extend him for the rest of the season and Gerald Green demonstrated why having absolutely no conscience while shooting the ball can be a very very good thing. He done went and made Eddie Johnson proud.
But with every bright spot seemed to come another obstacle. In the midst of a 3-game losing streak, it was reported that Eric Bledsoe had surgery on his meniscus and would be out indefinitely. How indefinitely? It's a month later and we still don't have a timeline. DragonBlade has been sheathed since January 11 and no one knows how or when it will be unleashed again.
No Bledsoe, No Problem: Part Two
It turns out that when you've already got a dragon, swords might be kind of beside the point. The words "Goran Dragic" and "All Star" have never really been used in the same sentence with any kind of seriousness. They've always had words like "potential" or "future" in their to qualify his talent and mitigate the expectation implicit in calling someone an All-Star. That was at least the case prior to Bledsoe's surgery.
Once Bledsoe went down, The Dragon put the team on his back and said, "Come. Fly with me." After that 9 game adjustment period, the Suns have won 8 of 12. You may remember some of those games. There was an absolute wrecking of the NBA's best defense in a 124-100 annihilation of the Indiana Pacers. 8 days later, the Suns would complete the season sweep of the now second-best team (they were the first before the Suns got to them) with an 8-point victory in Indianapolis. That second victory came in the middle of a 4-0 Eastern Conference road trip that also featured season sweeps of the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks. And that road trip was a part of an even bigger 5-game winning streak, the Suns' second of the season.
Yes, the Suns lost 3 of 4 heading into the All-Star Break, but one was against the heavily favored Miami Heat, one was against a stacked Rockets squad, and another was against the plodding and tenacious Chicago Bulls. The Suns have shown that they struggle consistently with teams that can successfully slow the pace to a crawl.
From the Ashes
But through it all, there has been one constant: the continually amazing play of Goran "The Dragon" Dragić. The man is carrying a team no one believed in but maybe themselves. He's averaging a career-best 20.3 points per game on a career-best (by a long shot) 50.8% shooting. He's dishing 6.2 assists per game and swiping 1.4 steals while he's at it. But perhaps most importantly, he is L-E-A-D-I-N-G this team, a role I was never sure he would be comfortable with. After being tossed away with a first round draft pick 2 years ago, he's a fitting figurehead for a Phoenix team that had been regarded as worthless this season.
The Phoenix Suns have exceeded all expectations this season, and as such, we should probably throw expectations out for the rest of the basketball year. We expected a loser and didn't get one. We then expected an All-Star and didn't get one of those either. So lets burn our expectations for the remaining 30-odd games and see what rises from those ashes too.