After a much-needed win against a struggling Minnesota Timberwolves team, the Phoenix Suns coach and players felt some measure of relief before saying they need to buckle down right away for the next game.
"It's refreshing tonight," P.J. Tucker said. "But when you wake up in the morning, you gotta think about one of the best teams in the league (Atlanta) coming in here on Friday. It will be a tough game."
But for a few minutes anyway, it was all jovial. And much needed. As we entered the locker room, I'd say that a record number of players were out of the showers and getting dressed. They were laughing and talking animatedly and made the media session a breeze. I got no less than six interviews in a span of 20 minutes that didn't even get dampened by the new Tucker/Morrii/Bledsoe feint (more on that later).
This was T.J. Warren's night. The 21-year old rookie shucked and jived his way to 17 points - all at the rim - and 5 rebounds (3 of the offensive/putback variety) to give life to a Suns offense that badly needed new life.
"I just want to come in with full confidence," he said afterward. "And play hard when I'm out there and I just want to be effective when I'm out there and I'm glad we got the win, as well."
He's not much of an interview, quite yet.
"T.J. gave us a big lift off the bench," coach Hornacek said. "It was a little bit of a struggle [for him] in the beginning defensively, he got back-cut a couple of times, but then he kind of fell in to the groove.
"He makes some great plays for us, that cutting is huge and I think guys really look for him on those cuts. That one that Bled found him late, I think it was only a six point game, seven point game. That was huge. You know, I think they had confidence that if they throw it anywhere near him he is going to catch it. Because, I'll say it again, he's got great hands. That is a hard pass sometimes as you're cutting, but he catches them every time and knows how to finish."
Anyone on this team with great hands is a godsend. No Phoenix Suns player since Amare Stoudemire has shown quite that ability to grab the ball in traffic on the way to the hoop.
Not to over-tout T.J., because he still has lots of holes in his game, but his ability to cut to the rim, grab the ball in traffic and move to score in the same motion is a rarity in the NBA.
"He played great tonight," Brandan Wright said afterward. "I'm happy for him. Makes you smile, for a rookie [to do that]."
Here's the highlights, thanks to youtube user DownToBuck:
Eric Bledsoe made some nice passes to T.J. all night.
"I knew he was going to cut," Bledsoe said. "I seen him the whole time he was going to cut because he's probably the only one that's not going to stay out there on the perimeter and just sit there and jack threes all night. He did a great job tonight."
Bledsoe talked about Warren's threat to cut to the basket makes the defense play that much harder.
"It definitely helps," he said. "It opened up shots for other people because now everybody is going to look at the game and say TJ like to cut here, he kept going and got shots for everybody else."
It wasn't all about T.J. Warren though.
Marcus Thornton provided huge shotmaking and hustle in his minutes off the bench - something sorely lacking since Thomas was traded and Green reduced himself to a puddle of ugh. He poured in 14 points and generally looking about three times faster than he'd looked in any prior outing for the Suns.
He's not satisfied though.
"Not even close, not even close," he said. "Everybody feels like this was a good game, but I'm still hard on myself. I missed some shots I knew I'm supposed to make, so it was an ok game for me."
The youngest Sun, just 20 years old even though he's almost done with his second NBA season, played strictly backup point guard tonight. With the Suns having a multitude of shooting guards and needing a way to play T.J. Warren, Goodwin might just be relegated to backup PG duty a lot.
And in this game, he did it pretty well. He had only one point (0-4 shooting), but contributed three assists.
"I'm just trying to make the right play," he said.
It's been up and down for Brandan since joining the Suns in December. He often looks a bit lost out there, especially on offense, as the Suns try to play him at backup PF as well as backup C.
With Alex Len not playing well, Wright got some good run at the C position and showed well, helped by the absence of Nikola Pekovic (ankle).
He's played in a lot of different lineups. Since he was acquired in December, the Suns have traded away six rotation players and replaced them with as many new ones. Most of those changes have occurred on the second and third units, where Brandan Wright lives.
"We just play on the fly," he said. "It's tough when you haven't played with a guy, but as long as you play hard you'll be fine."
(editor's note: sorry my questions sucked tonight, folks. I was off my game. It's tougher than I thought it would be this season to maintain good video angle and focus on asking questions at the same time.)
Now we get to the best teamwork I've seen all season. Tucker, Bledsoe and the Morris twins have begun emerging from the showers as a unit, making sure they get dressed at the same speed. That way, they can ensure the media only hassles one or two of them at most each night while "making themselves available".
It's worked like a charm the last few home games. Tucker and Bledsoe took the media this time.
We start with Tucker.
"It's about next man up," he said of players filling in for Brandon Knight. "I'm sure the front office wants to see a lot of guys play. They've (T.J. and Archie) stepped in and gotten better. It's next man up. That's how it works in this league."
Tucker said he's trying to bring the energy, and show the bench guys that's how to have success.
Bled was the other of the four to do an interview scrum. He had one of his best games in a long time as a facilitator, making some great passes to set up his teammates.
"Yeah, we have been trying to say, ‘You don't have to make necessarily the home run pass. Just make the easy one. You know, you're going to get an assist or a hockey assist out of it. You know, with that guy attacking and throwing it to the next guy.'," coach Hornacek explained after the game.
"So I thought he did a better job. I think one time he maybe jumped up in the air, but for the most part when he was driving in there looking to pass, he wasn't at 100 percent speed. It looked like he was at about 80 percent speed, under control, watching where everybody is cutting. So I thought he did a great job."
And what really opened up his game was taking and making those midrange jumpers.
"I just got to shoot it," he said. "When I shoot it, I pretty much shoot a high percentage and I just don't shoot it for whatever reason. Coach tells me to shoot it all the time."
Last year, Bledsoe was more effective in the midrange, around the free throw line. Taking and making those shots makes the defense adjust. Now, he can shoot from three, from mid and at the rim. The defense won't be able to let up, if he just takes those shots.
"Even when Brandon comes back," Bledsoe said. "I think I got to be more aggressive because my teammates want me to be more aggressive and my coaches and I want to be aggressive too. But, at the same time I just want to get everybody open shots, too."
Final Word: Mook was great
Lost a bit in the Warren/Thornton night was the work that Marcus Morris put in. He was great in the first half, keeping the Suns alive while their shooting went into one of its slumps.
Mook contributed 8 rebounds and 5 assists in the first half alone, being active everywhere.
"All this practice and stuff that we're going over and over about just catching the ball and go with it, he has his times," coach Hornacek said of Mook. "He's a decent iso guy where he can pull up, he maybe hasn't made them recently, but all year long he has been pretty good at that.
"But he is really taking the ball on the run now and going after it and he's making plays which is big for us. We can't always rely on Eric to make a play or Markieff to make a post-up shot. We need other guys to make plays and not necessarily for themselves, but for others. For five assists off our three or four man, that's pretty good."
It was a nice, and much needed, win on Wednesday night.
Now's the time to push forward, getting the kids their minutes AND staying competitive in a brutal, season-ending schedule that pits the 34-32 Suns against better teams (higher winning percentage) in 13 of their last 16 games.
Enjoy it, Suns fans. I implore you to find a way to enjoy the last 16 games, because after that you're not going to get any Suns basketball for six months.