The Phoenix Suns got the benefit of a bad effort by the New Orleans Pelicans.
"Terrible, terrible... bad effort," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry offered after the game. "Not playing hard, not giving a damn, that's the way I want to sum it up."
Love Alvin. He says it like it is. His comments last night remind me of this, which had us all scrambling to confirm 'did he really say that?'.
Star Anthony Davis, who contributed to the poor showing with an extremely quiet 16 points and 12 rebounds (I mean, seriously), agreed with the Pelicans coach.
"We played terrible," Davis said. "We weren't competing we didn't play hard. They (Suns) just did whatever they wanted and we acted like we didn't want to be here."
Those are kind of trap games for these Suns though. Too often, the Suns see their opponent coasting and take their foot off the gas long enough to wake them up. But last night, the Suns were focused enough to keep the car running, never letting the lead get back to single digits for more than a few seconds after last first quarter.
After letting the Pelicans - especially Anthony Davis - beat them twice in four days last month, the Suns rotated a number of defenders onto Davis, including the really long Tyson Chandler and Alex Len.
"Those guys did a great job tonight protecting the basket," Hornacek said of Len and Chandler. "We decided to have those guys get a chance at Anthony Davis. Anthony Davis is so long, that it's hard to really put a tough challenge on his shot when he goes into it, but Alex and Tyson have a little longer reach that gives them the ability to challenge it a little bit. That was good."
The other big development was the return of Markieff Morris to the rotation.
"I told him ahead of time that he was going to be the first sub at the four spot," Hornacek said of Morris, who'd played a grand total of seven minutes in the past two weeks. "We need to get him back playing for us to have a little strength and toughness in there down low."
"It felt good," Morris said of being out there. "I had a lot of fun tonight being out there with my teammates and getting this much needed win."
Morris has been a model citizen throughout the season despite playing awfully on the court and just not being focused enough to make smart plays. Most importantly, he's been getting himself ready to get out there.
"Whenever your time is called," Morris said after the game. "You got to be ready to play like Archie and Sonny were against Dallas. They hadn't played in ten or so games but when they played in the fourth quarter, they were ready to play."
Morris connected on his first (and only) two threes without hesitation and looked engaged offensively, though his defense was suspect and he committed several reaching fouls. Some of that could be attributed to rust, but he was a foul machine earlier in the year as well. On offense, he was quicker to shoot than Mirza Teletovic, and that's saying a lot. Morris put up 13 shots (making 5) in 16 minutes of play.
With the recent report that the Suns' best trade offer so far is with Houston, who must wait until mid-January to include any salary matching players in a deal, the Suns have apparently decided to make better use of Morris in the interim. I seriously doubt he's being played to 'up his trade value' because teams know exactly what they are getting with Morris.
While Teletovic and Leuer are playing well - Teletovic had 24 points against Golden State and Leuer had 12 point and 10 rebounds against the Pelicans - it's clear that Markieff Morris brings a skill level on offense that neither can produce. Is that the kind of offense they need (high-post and low-post fadeaways)? Maybe, maybe not. But he does bring a new dimension.
Listen to his post game interview here.
Besides the novelty of Markieff Morris back in the Suns lineup, the most exciting development has to be the rapid growth in basketball skills of 22 year old Alex Len.
In the span of the past month, Len has become much more instinctive and reactionary on the court on offense, making himself available for rolls and lobs at the rim. And of course, his defense and rebounding have always been good but he's even extending more and getting rebounds in traffic more than ever.
"I feel more comfortable out there while I'm on the court," Len said. "Just trying to do what I can: set screens, rebound, do the little things."
Len's 19 points and 13 rebounds marked his third double-double in the last 11 games. He made 8 of 11 shots, including his only three attempt in the final seconds. Coach Hornacek wanted to reward Len's great play with getting him a long ball before time ran out.
"Coach (Hornacek) actually drew it up three plays before that one," Len said. "But we didn't run it until later."
The coach and players were effusive about Len after the game, as they've been often this season.
"Unbelievable," Bledsoe said of Len's rapid progress.
The Suns best player set the tone early with 11 points in the opening quarter, and finished it strong with 29 for the game. He added 9 assists and 4 rebounds, along with 2 steals.
Bledsoe said they wanted the bad taste of Wednesday night washed away as quickly as possible.
"We pretty much got embarrassed on national TV last game," Bledsoe said. "We didn't want to come out tonight and have the same game. It was just, ‘hit first.'"
The Suns needed the win last night, especially after having been beaten twice already by the 8-19 Pelicans.
"The Pelicans are a lot better than what their record shows," Bledsoe said. "So we just tried to hold on to our lead finally."
The Pelicans came out flat, but could have woken up at any time if the Suns hadn't kept pressing. They got in passing lanes and kept Anthony Davis out of the flow of the offense by diving down to disrupt his post moves. Some of those dive-downs left three-point shooters wide open, but the Pellies could not convert.
The Suns aggressive defense worked in terms of harassing shooters into bad shooting nights, even though they sent the Pellies to the line way too often (38 free throws allowed). This performance was a departure from the rest of the season for the Suns, who've cut down on their fouls at the expense of allowing a league-worst opponent field goal percentage. They flipped the switch last night and it worked.