Everyone says that moral victories are nothing to hang your hat on in sports, but I am going to go the other way with that distinction. Last night’s game was a great example of a loss that can be used as a building block for a young team still finding its way. To come back from a 22-point deficit against a team spearheaded by LeBron James is no easy feat, and the Suns teased the fan base of potentially brighter days to come.
Eric Bledsoe shared a similar perspective after the game, “I’m mad we lost, but at the same time, it’s one of those games where you know, I guess it’s a good loss,” Bledsoe said. “You know, we competed with one of the top teams in the league. To be down like that and come back — it says a lot. We just got to start playing like this night in and night out.”
Phoenix was scrambling on defense in the first half, allowing Cleveland’s “Big 3” to do whatever they pleased both in the half court and in transition. A different tone was set in the second half, with heavy ball pressure leading to more turnovers and easy buckets in transition. Coach Earl Watson harped on watch changed from the first to the second half.
“I thought in the first half we didn’t play our style of basketball defensively. I thought we sat on the ball — we didn’t get aggressive with deflections and we didn’t put pressure on the ball, Watson said. “We gave them a lot of chances to come off of pick-and-rolls and hit pocket passes for dunks, pocket passes to the roll man for threes on the weak side. We let them play on the weak side too much.”
That last point was especially apparent in the first half: playing conservatively against James and his army of shooters in the pick-and-roll provides an easy avenue to points over and over again. Both James and Kyrie Irving feast on making pocket passes within tight slivers of space. Simply providing more effort from a ball pressure and denial standpoint can lead to continuous stops for the Suns due to their athleticism and length on defense.
That is until James crushes everyone’s dreams late in the fourth quarter with two back-breaking 3-pointers in transition. What do you have to say about those, Coach Watson?
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Overall, last night’s game was great exposure for the young guns to go toe to toe with perhaps the premiere team in the league. Marquese Chriss was given a full workload against Kevin Love, Devin Booker was flying around on defense like never before, and even Dragan Bender hit a three and leveraged his length to be pesky at times. The game felt intense in its later stages, and playing in high leverage situations against elite competition can only be a good thing for a young team.
“This is really important for young teams. So, coaches tell young teams that you have to play with an edge, you have to play nasty. I think sometimes younger players feel like that’s not a cool way to play. And there’s no cool way to play in the NBA. You can’t be cool and win games. So whether you are the Cavs, San Antonio or Golden State, if you watch when they play each other it’s always a nasty game,” Coach Watson said.
“I think our team did a great job in the second half coming out and creating a type of style of basketball defensively that gave us an edge and allowed us to get out in transition. It was fun to watch.”
And that edge transferred over to the crowd, who easily eclipsed their highest decibel level on the season (this is an Owen Sanborn inference, and not an actual fact). The crowd brought some Nash era Suns noise last night.
“I thought the crowd was great. Anytime you play basketball and you’re at home, anytime the crowd can get into the game, it takes you to another level,” Coach Watson said.
Below is my favorite quote from the night, coming from Coach Watson before the game. A reporter asked him about his relationship with Coach Tyronn Lue and it somehow lead into a great John Stockton anecdote that plays up the evolving reputation that he was one of the “dirtiest” players to play against.
“And that goes back to my first experience playing against John Stockton. I’m a big John Stockton fan, and I went to pick him up full court and I was really aggressive on the ball. I just couldn’t believe his short was so small,” Coach Watson said.
“So like, I’m guarding him and defending him and I was like, ‘Man, he is playing in like Asics, this is crazy.’ And I’m defending him, defending him, and the next thing you know the ball went past my face. I like ducked, and looked behind me and no one is behind me. And John was like, ‘Back the f up.’”
You never know where Coach Watson is going to take you after you lob up a question to him.