The Phoenix Suns struck out to a 10-6 record last week following a win over the Denver Nuggets at home. However, they were blown out by Denver on the road the following game, and lost a very winnable game at home to the now 7-12 Orlando Magic last night.
There's no doubt about it, that was a bad loss, and the Suns are now sitting at 10-8.
But where do the Suns go from here? How do they get back to their winning ways before continuing to slide in a very talented Western Conference?
This morning, I attended the Suns practice in hopes of finding answers to some of these questions. Here is what I saw and heard.
Random Practice Notes:
- By the time we were let into the court, Isaiah Thomas was already sitting down. He was in full practice gear though and wasn't walking with a limp afterwards, as was reported previously, so hopefully he is close to returning.
- Anthony Tolliver was helping some of the young players on the court during the scrimmage, and constantly offering assistance and encouragement to them. He is a very positive, upbeat addition to the team, and I was impressed by his attitude.
- Gerald Green, Markieff, and Marcus Morris were helping Archie Goodwin with his shot after practice. Green was telling Archie to increase the area of his shooting triangle (the space between the forearms and the ball that forms a triangle-like shape when shooting), so he can see the other players and the basket better. They were telling Archie he is holding the ball with his elbows together too tightly when he shoots. Green was using Mook's wide shooting triangle as an example for Goodwin. Some good coaching by Green and the twins.
Post Practice Quotes:
On if he's concerned with lack of offense:
"There's some concerns, but not big ones that can't be fixed. We have to get into our early offense a little bit more, and move the ball better. We have stretches where we move the ball. I thought today at practice we did a great job of moving the ball." He continued, "When we pass, pass, pass, then the guy who ends up shooting is in a better rhythm. When we're trying to do too much one-on-one stuff, you may make some, but then the other guys are falling asleep."
When we do kick it out, we have to make a good pass. At times our guys are trying to make a good pass but are just throwing it in the general vicinity of the player, and when they catch it the ball may be low, or high, or to the side. When you make a pass, you want to make sure you hit them in the chest so they can catch it and shoot.
On missing open shots:
"When we get open shots we have to be able to shoot them. I call it a practice shot. It's the same thing you practice everyday when the guys do their shooting. Maybe we should have the coaches throw them some bad passes, which we've done in the past, so they can get used to shooting when the pass isn't right there. So maybe we'll do a little bit more of that too."
On struggles the past couple of games:
"For us, it's energy. Everything goes with our energy, our intensity, and our ability to go after guys. When we're focused that way and we lat it all out there, we're pretty good. But if we go through the motions, or we don't want to get a foul called on us, that's usually when things don't go well."
On possible changes to line-ups:
"We've looked at things. But it's not like we're bad at any of the spots, we're just not great at it. But that's a possibility. As of today, we're keeping the same group in there. We'll continue to discuss that. It's all going to be if we need more energy off the bench, or if we need more energy starting, we're always looking at that stuff."
The thing that stood out to me about Hornacek's comments regarding the line-ups is that he is always evaluating, as he should be, but that he doesn't see the need to make an immediate change.
While many may hypothesize that adding P.J. Tucker back to the starting line-up, for instance, may help the Suns with additional defense and rebounding, he sees the problem as being more of a lack of energy than anything else. Hornacek seems to think the issues are correctable with the line-ups he already has...at least for now.
On practicing with energy and what went wrong against the Magic"
"We're figuring things out as a team still, and learning how to fit in together. I just have to keep doing what I'm supposed to do, and do it (with intensity), and things will come back around." He continued, "Our whole team was really focused today in practice. We know after the Denver game we can't respond the way we did...that's not what we did last year. We're all disappointed with ourselves, but we're not going to hang our heads. We worked hard today and we're ready to play tomorrow."
On how practice affects the team's play:
"Energy, effort, focus...just being sharp. If you go through practice soft, plays don't work. The team that plays harder covers there mistakes. We just have to get back to playing hard."
On recently improved jump-shot:
"It's something I worked on over the Summer...I wanted to expand my game. Even though I haven't gotten to shoot many, I worked on it a lot and I feel a lot more confident than I did last year." He continued, "I worked on simplifying my game and solidifying my game in the post...taking my time, and reading the situation. I try to improve a lot of things, but adding the jump-shot and being comfortable from 15 to 18 feet would really help me, and the team a lot."
On what he's done to improve his play recently:
"You get in a rut, and you start over-thinking things and try to figure out what you have to do to get out of it, and I actually spoke with Grant Hill, (who told me that) some times you just have to play harder and stop thinking about it. Then you can get back to a place where your teammates have confidence in you and throw you the ball because you're playing well. You can't try to get it back with certain plays, it's just getting out there and doing it and playing hard."
Miles is certainly seeking help from the right people by contacting Grant Hill. He didn't specify whether he reached out to Grant, or vice versa, but I thought it was encouraging that he had received some sage advice from the savvy, Ex-Suns veteran, and it certainly seems to be helping Miles regain some of that intensity and confidence he demonstrated early on last season.
On what he's doing to play so well this season:
"I'm trying to do a little bit of everything...just trying to be an all-around player, and try to get my team involved."
On his increased assists this season:
"I think I'm getting in a lot more situations where I can make plays for other players on the team. The guys are doing good jobs of getting open, I'm just making good passes."
On last two losses:
"We waited too long to play our game, not playing with intensity, and not respecting our opponents. Once they get hot, any team in this league is liable to beat (anyone else). Yesterday we had a good chance to beat Orlando, but we waited to long, and as soon as we tried to turn it up, but they were already in the game."
On what he's trying to improve:
"I want to get better at all aspects. I wish I was shooting the three well...I did that all off-season and obviously it's not transferring over (to the games). But I just want to continue working on my game overall and become a better player on and off the court, as a player and a student of the game."
On watching a lot of film:
"I think that's the way you get better. When you're young in your career a lot of guys don't tend to watch film, they just go by the scouting report, but I think that makes you better. Rebounding wise I watched Dennis Rodman during the off-season. I tend to watch guys now though back because it's a different game than it was back in the day."
Interestingly, the longest response Keef gave today was when I asked him a question about his overall consistency, but also hinted at the fact that he had struggled against Denver. When I asked Markieff if he did anything differently, or what changes he made to bounce back so quickly against Orlando with another very solid overall performance, he had this to say:
"I wouldn't call it a struggle against Denver. I didn't play the whole third or fourth quarter, I only played a little bit. They were beating us, and the coach wanted to give the young guys a chance. I missed a couple of shots, but I don't call that struggling." He continued, "I made plays defensively and I passed the ball well, so it was just a tough loss as a team. We just have to come out and play hard. Coach said today that we have a job to do for 82 games of the season, and we have to come out with intensity. It doesn't matter how you feel we have to come out and bring it every day."
Now, Keef played 23 minutes against Denver in all, and went 3/10 from the field for only seven points, along with just three rebounds and one assist. While many of us may call that struggling, I found it interesting that Markieff disagreed, and chose to focus on his overall performance, and also looked at things he did during the game that don't necessarily translate to the stat sheet.
Maybe this is how he keeps himself so level, and doesn't seem to get frustrated or go into a longer slump if he's missing shots? If so, this team seems to need more of that same perspective. Many players ebb and flow from game to game, as the ball finds one hot hand after another. But Markieff has been the most consistent player on the team this year, and is helping out in a variety of ways.
In any event, the theme from one player to the next, and with the coach during today's practice was very clear: Energy and intensity. This is what the Suns must continue to play with if they are going to be successful, and they not only realize it, they all seem to be working on the same page to help bring it back to the team, and help return to their winning ways.
The question now is, will they be able to get back on track tomorrow night against the Indiana Pacers?