In the season's second Orange Friday game (7pm AZ time on FoxSports Arizona), the Phoenix Suns (3-2) face the surging Sacramento Kings (4-1) in what promises to be a fast-paced game. The Kings run hard (5th in pace) to get into early offense and draw fouls, while the Suns run hard (7th in pace) to score as quickly as possible or shoot a three ball.
New Suns backup point guard Isaiah Thomas will surely want to show his former team what they are missing.
"I want to beat those guys (the Kings)," Thomas said on Wednesday night. "That's a pretty good team over there. Obviously I want to play well. I want to show those guys they made a mistake, but at the same time it's about winning. It's about doing what's best."
Isaiah Thomas' old team is off to a raucous 4-1 start, feeling quite good about themselves and their new "pass-happy" offense. I put the "pass-happy" in quotes because Kings players have said they feel like the ball is moving a lot better than ever. Yes, the Kings are passing more - up to 294 passes per game vs. just 270 last year (last in the league by far). Factoring in their faster pace this season, that's one more pass every fifth possession.
Where the Kings are truly thriving is at the free throw line. In five games, the Kings lead the NBA in free throw attempts (40) and makes (32.6) per game. That's a whopping 57.4% more points per game on free throws than they averaged all last season. New pickup Darren Collison is averaging 6.8 free throw attempts (FTA) per game, Rudy Gay 9.2 and DeMarcus Cousins 9.8. Gay and Collison have so far nearly doubled their career FTA averages, on a per-minute basis. Outside of free throws, the Kings offense has declined dramatically. Their three-point attempt rate is 28th in the league (down 25%). Their overall field goal % has declined as well.
On the plus side, the Kings defense has improved a great deal. The Kings are outrebounding their opponents by 9 per game (47 vs. 38.2) and allowing fewer three-point makes. They are allowing more three-point attempts to the opposition (again, 28th worst in the league) than last year, but the opponents are making only 27% of them so far. Put those together, and the Kings are in the top half of the league on defense this season.
Welp, the Suns are still trying to find their groove. The depth of the team has eaten into everyone's playing time and left some of them wondering what their role is. Of course, the simple answer is that you play the role you're given. The more difficult answer is that the role you're given is not always the one you like to hear.
It's the coach's job to define those roles as clearly as possible, and then once they are defined to provide an environment for success. Coach is still experimenting with different groupings of players in pressure situations. It appears that the first month of the season is a science experiment. So far, the only real positive answers are that Markieff Morris is still good and predictable, Isaiah Thomas and Gerald Green are scoring machines off the bench, and Alex Len is a guy who can develop into a real player.
The Suns are 3-2 largely because they played one good game (last Orange Friday, over San Antonio) and then had the Lakers twice. The supersized Grizzlies and Jazz were bad matchups last year and they will be bad matchups again this season.
The Suns don't have much room to talk on passing. Last year, they threw the second-fewest passes in the league (Kings were last), and this year they are slightly worse (268.6 passes per game vs. 270). Still, the Suns assist total is steady, and their drive-and-kick scheme is fine as long as players are making their jump shots. So far this season, that hasn't been the case since opening night.
Last year's Suns-Kings series
Unfortunately for Suns fans, the Kings are a bad matchup too. On November 19 and 20 last year, the Suns lost a home-and-home b-2-b to the Kings when Eric Bledsoe missed both (shin). DeMarcus Cousins roasted the Suns (27 and 12 in game 1, 19 and 12 in game 2) as did Isaiah Thomas (19 and 3 in game 1, 23 and 4 in game 2 off the bench). Goran Dragic had one good game (31 points) and one bad (10). Gerald Green was good in both games, as was Marcus Morris. But Markieff Morris was a complete non-factor in both.
The Suns were much better in the last two matchups with the Kings when Eric Bledsoe was available to form the Slash Brothers. Bledsoe and Dragic combined for 57 points as the Suns cruised to a 116-107 home victory. Isaiah Thomas was a starter by that time, after Vasquez was traded for Rudy Gay. Thomas threw up 29 points and 6 assists in the loss while DeMarcus Cousins had 15 points and 16 rebounds. The final matchup was the season-ender, where Archie Goodwin scored 29 glorious points to help the Suns finish on a high note after being eliminated from the playoffs.
The (potential) Lineups
The Key Matchup
Obviously, one key matchup here is DeMarcus Cousins and whoever is guarding him. Cousins has been the best big man in the league so far this season and it might not even be close. His scoring is up a bit from last season (24 PPG va. 22.7), his shooting percentage has improved (51% vs. 49%) and he's getting to the free throw line at an incredibly high rate (9.8 attempts per game). The Suns will counter with Miles Plumlee and Alex Len, who will both be physically overwhelmed but just need to limit their fouls enough to make sure DeMarcus doesn't beat the Suns singlehandedly.
The other obvious key matchup is Isaiah Thomas vs. Darren Collison. Collison has come out like a house on fire for the Kings, with career highs all over the board in total stats but shooting poorly (as you might expect of a player given more minutes than ever). Thomas has come to the Suns with that famous chip on his shoulder, leading the team with a 18.7 PPG average with high shooting %. The Suns' clear advantage is that Thomas is only the third best point guard on the Suns. Collison will have to battle with physical starter Eric Bledsoe first, then speedy Thomas second and a bit of crafty Dragic in there as well.
Out on a limb
Goran Dragic is due for a breakout game. You simply cannot go an entire season without making a three pointer after making better than 40% of them the year before.
I predict Dragic will score 20+ points tonight with 2 or 3 three-pointers in there.
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The Kings are off to a hot start but some of the numbers look like the poster child for "small sample size". Still, they are more physical than the Suns and that's a recipe for winning.
Yet while the Kings, especially DeMarcus Cousins, can be tough they also play into the Suns hands by playing at a fast pace. The Kings are 5th in pace, so the Suns might just be able to shake off some early-season doldrums with a free and easy game plan.
Isaiah Thomas scores about 30 points against his old team, and the Suns cruise to a 115-105 win.