Phoenix Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek wants his team to play hard-nosed defense and constantly preaches to the team that good defense initiates high-quality offense in the form of fast breaks and early offense opportunities before the other team can get settled in.
The Suns players, to a man, agree with the coach and after losses they are more apt to lament their poor defense than offense as the reason for the loss. And they would be right. When the Suns lose, it's because their defense just couldn't hold the other team in check.
Last night's loss is a case in point. The closing lineup scored 16 points in the final 6 minutes of the game, but gave up just as many to the Pelicans in a 4-point loss. Those key defensive possessions just did not end in enough stops.
It's not that the Suns played bad defense in the closing minutes, per se, except for one possession on which they forced Tyreke Evans into a bad three-pointer but then allowed him to get the offensive rebound and score on free throws. The other times, they just got bullied by a bigger team and/or forced a midrange just that Reke made anyway.
Last season, the Suns began to rise back from the ashes with a high-intensity combination of "above average" offense and "okay" defense that allowed them to win unexpected games all season long and finish with a 48-34 record. The offense finished 8th most efficient in the league (scoring per possession) while the defense finished 15th.
This season, the results have been mixed but the Suns seem to have "found" themselves over the last seven games and we probably should just hop along for the ride. The offense is going to carry this team, like it or not.
The new Suns team, as they embrace the three-point-guard lineup in key situations, looks a great deal like Suns teams of the past. Please don't take this in the literal way. I am not suggesting that anyone on this team looks like Steve Nash, or Charles Barkley, or Tom Chambers in his prime. Don't put those words in my fingertips.
But these Suns are using the same formula as the best of the franchise's past: score like crazy and hope the defense holds just good enough to win
Closing games with Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas and Goran Dragic in the same lineup with two big men has caught fire, propelling the Suns to a 6-game winning streak snapped only by Reke's unlikely shot-making in the clutch. With the guards, the Suns are scoring at will and generally playing good enough defense to hold the advantage.
And finally, let's listen to the Kobe Bryant when he talks about the Phoenix Suns:
"They've got one on the left, one on the right and one in the middle," Bryant said. "You can't cover them all."
As Mike D'Antoni famously said, the best defense is a better offense.
I pointed out the other day, the Suns have the league's #1 offense over the past two weeks, even pace-adjusted. The three-point shots are finally falling and, generally, the team's best players are playing well on a consistent basis.
But over the same period of time, the Suns defense has been sagging. This is old news to Suns fans who have been around since the 2000s, or the 90s or the even 80s and 70s. The better the offense plays, the more lazy the defense gets.
On the season, the Suns have jumped from 13th overall in offense to 8th (points per possession), and dropped from 15th on defense to 20th in the span of just seven games. Those are big swings in the small span of two weeks, but if it's working why change it? The Suns are 6-1 in those games.
A by-product of easy scoring is to lose your edge on defense. When you know you're going to score 100+ points a game, it's easy to let your defense slide in the first half, or even early in the second half. But the problem is that by then the other team has confidence and mojo, knowing they can keep up in scoring too.
We'll see how 2015 plays out, but my guess is that we will see a lot of what we've seen over the past week.
And we should embrace it.
It's going to be a wild ride, Suns fans.