What the Suns should do when the lockout ends

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This is the latest installment of PBT’s series of “What your team should do when the lockout ends.” Up next is the Phoenix Suns. You can also check out our thoughts on other NBA teams here as we work our way through all 30 squads.

Last season: Just one year removed from pushing the eventual champion Lakers to six games in the Western Conference Finals, the Suns took a few steps backward by finishing out the 2010-11 season in mid-April, with a record of 40-42 that wasn’t even good enough to get them back to the playoffs. The reasons for the decline are obvious, of course. But that doesn’t make the lost season any more palatable for Suns fans.

Amar’e Stoudemire was lost in free agency, after the team refused to give him the max deal that he was able to get from the Knicks. The team tried to fill the void left by Stoudemire’s departure with Hedo Turkoglu, Hakim Warrick, and Josh Childress. It was clear fairly early on that Turkoglu wasn’t going to provide enough help, so he was dealt in mid-December to the Magic for Vince Carter and Marcin Gortat. Gortat turned out to be a nice surprise, and Carter was serviceable at times. But the bigger issue was sending Jason Richardson to Orlando, because the Suns largely struggled to replace his consistent scoring on a game-by-game basis for the remainder of the year.

Changes since we last saw the Suns: The only official change to the Suns roster happened on draft night, though there are likely plenty more on the way once the lockout is resolved and the free agency period begins. Phoenix used its 13th overall pick in the draft to sign Markieff Morris, a big man who the Suns believe can provide immediate help on the defensive end of the floor. The Suns talked about his intangibles and toughness on draft night, and if the team’s brain trust is correct in that assessment, Morris could be a nice rebuilding piece for the future.

When the lockout ends, the Suns need to: Make some hard decisions, and stick with them.

The Suns’ best players, while still productive, are on the tail ends of their careers. Steve Nash is still one of the top point guards in the game, and if the Suns want to continue to compete, then they need to sign him beyond next season, when his contract is slated to run out. The team has been adamant about not wanting to trade Nash, and has said that they would only do so at his request. Nash himself has said multiple times that he wants to stay in Phoenix, and that things like stability and camaraderie are just as important to him at this stage of his career as the opportunity to win a championship.

If both player and team are on that same page, the Suns need to fortify their roster with capable complimentary talent that can help Nash and the Suns challenge with another run in the postseason. That means delaying the rebuilding process for a couple of years, and making some short-term decisions that would enable Phoenix to win now. The thing is, the Suns don’t have a lot of room for error here. They’ll need to guess right on their next wave of trades or free agent signings, and can’t afford to make yet another mid-season trade that changes the continuity of the team and provides little short-term hope for success.

As we mentioned, although there haven’t been any changes to the roster since the end of last season, you can bet that they’re coming. Vince Carter will be bought out of his contract, and likely won’t be back unless he is willing to take somewhere in the neighborhood of a minimum deal to stay in Phoenix. Aaron Brooks is a restricted free agent, and depending on how the new collective bargaining agreement is structured, it would be easy to see him begin the new season elsewhere. Mickael Pietrus struggled with injuries the latter part of the season, but even before then, he didn’t provide the team with anything more other than a quirky locker room personality, so he might be another player that the team will look to replace via trade.

If the team does indeed decide to keep Nash beyond next season, they’ll surely want to keep Grant Hill as well. Hill, even at this late stage of his career, has been the team’s best one-on-one defender, and is stellar at getting out on the break and finishing at the rim when the team is pushing the tempo, i.e., doing what it does best. Hill is a free agent right now though, so the decision on him — while certainly tied to the one on Nash — will need to be made sooner rather than later.

It all comes down to the decision to either play in the present or for the future for the Suns heading into next season. Keeping Nash and building around him for another chance to compete would certainly keep the fans happy, but on the flip side, he’s a huge asset that could bring back long-term value for the team if it does decide to go the rebuilding route. The team’s glue guy, Jared Dudley, concisely summed up the toughness of this decision in a recent interview with us.

“It sounds good to trade the franchise player and try to get something back, but sometimes the stuff you get back isn’t that good and then you’re in for a long haul to try and get back up to the top,” he said.

And therein lies the dilemma for your 2011-12 Phoenix Suns.

Watch best of Klay Thompson’s nine threes, 35-point night

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Stephen Curry is a better shooter. Kevin Durant is a better scorer with a bigger toolbox.

But no Warrior can get as white-hot as Klay Thompson.

He did that on Saturday night helping the Warriors to a Game 6 win, getting his rhythm and becoming a scoring machine in the second half, finishing with 35 points including hitting 9-of-14 from three, and having six rebounds. He was just as important on the other end of the floor.

“I thought Klay was amazing tonight, not just for 35 points and the nine threes, but his defense,” Coach Steve Kerr said. “The guy’s a machine. He’s just so fit physically. He seems to thrive in these situations. But he was fantastic.”

Thompson will need to bring some of that Heat in Game 7 on the road if the Warriors are going to head back to the NBA Finals.

Backs against wall down 17, Warriors crank up defense, rain threes, force Game 7

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Warriors’ fans have been asking one question since the season tipped off in October:

What is it going to take to get Golden State to truly focus and play up to their potential?

Apparently, the answer is going down 17 to the Houston Rockets in a playoff elimination game.

Houston entered Oracle Saturday night playing smart and with energy, defending as they had the previous two games and then turning that into transition buckets and threes — 11 of them in the first half. Houston was up 17 in the first quarter and 10 at the half.

However, Golden State had started to defend better in the second quarter and they cranked up the intensity to the level fans had hoped to see in the second half — Houston scored 39 points in the first quarter and 47 combined in the final three. Houston had 25 points in the second half and shot 2-of-9 from three in the third quarter.

At the same time, Klay Thompson led an onslaught of threes for Golden State (Thompson had 9 threes on the night). The Warriors defense turned into offense.

The result was a dramatic turnaround and a 115-86 Golden State win, tying the Western Conference Finals at 3-3.

Game 7 is in Houston Monday night. Winner advances to the NBA Finals.

“Effort. Intensity. Passion,” Thompson said of the Warriors’ second-half surge. “When we do that, and we rotate, and we help each other we’re the best defensive team in the league.”

While it was their defense that sparked everything, the Warriors also found an offense that worked against the Rockets’ switching defense — more Stephen Curry with the ball in his hands. There are a few ways to counter a switching defense and one is a creative ballhandler who can still make plays — not just isolation plays, but who can create a little space and find guys moving off the ball despite the pressure. Curry was that guy, he was the Warriors best all-around player on the night. He had a high IQ game and added 29 points. With the offense not running through Kevin Durant isolations, it just flowed better (the Warriors best lineup of the night was Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, and Nick Young, +13 in just more than eight minutes).

It just took a lot of pressure from a Rockets team to get Golden State into that mental frame of mind.

Houston opened this game with the same defensive energy they had the last two games, and once again it flustered the Golden State offense. Except, this time the Rockets did a much better job of turning those misses and turnovers into transition points (the Rockets averaged two points per possession on the break in the first half). Throw in some terrible defensive communication errors by the Warriors, and the Rockets were raining threes in the first half — 11-of-22, with Gordon going 4-of-4.

The Warriors had some success with an ultra-small lineup that unleashed Curry, but as soon as non-shooters were on the floor — Kevon Looney, Jordon Bell, and the Rockets were daring Draymond Green and Shaun Livingston to shoot — Houston shrunk the floor and took away passing lanes, plus contested every shot.

In the second half, the Warriors used that Curry energy and hit their threes to pull away. The Warriors were at their best with Bell as the fifth man with the four All-Stars, he brought an energy and athleticism that made things flow on both ends. Don’t be shocked if he starts Game 7 for Golden State.

If the Warriors pack up that second half energy with them and take it to Houston, there is not much the Rockets will be able to do. But do not expect these gritty, feisty Rockets to go quietly into that good night.

Rockets were draining threes in the first half against Warriors in Game 6

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The Rockets were feeling it the first half in Game 6.

Playing with an energy the Warriors lacked at least in the first quarter), Houston defended well, pushed the ball in transition, and then they just drained three after three after three.

Eric Gordon started 4-of-4 from three and the team was 11-of-22 in the first half, which made up for the 11 turnovers and had them up 17 at one point and ahead by 10 after the first half.

Warriors’ Andre Iguodala out for Game 6

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Steve Kerr has been searching for a couple of games now for his fifth guy.

With Andre Iguodala out there is no Death/Hamptons 5 lineup and Kerr is looking for a fifth guy to partner with his four All-Stars. Kevon Looney is starting, Jordan Bell is showing potential but also makes some rookie plays, Nick Young has been bad enough that Kerr trusted Quin Cook more at the end of the last game (and Cook missed his looks).

Kerr is going to have to keep searching for a guy in Game 6 because Iguodala is out again.

The Warriors are not the team heading into Game 6 with the most significant injury woes, the Rockets are without Chris Paul. That and the fact the Warriors’ backs are against the wall is the reason they are heavy favorites in Game 6.

However, the Warriors have not been the same without Iguodala. He is a playmaker who can control the ball and settle things down, makes the right decision, get the player and ball movement the Warriors have strayed too much from back, plus is one of their best defenders on James Harden. Nobody else on the roster can do that.

And if Game 6 gets tight late, the Warriors are going to miss those skills. As they have in the last two games.