Suns drop to 0-2, search to explain offensive struggles

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In recent years, the Phoenix Suns have been known for, above all else, having an uptempo and elite offense. Win or lose, and no matter the season’s ultimate result, the team never struggled to score with Steve Nash running a descendant of Mike D’Antoni’s offense.

Through two games in this young season, however, offense has been a huge problem for the Suns, and the primary reason behind both of the team’s losses.

At least in Monday’s season opener against the Hornets, Phoenix was in it until the final possession. But in Wednesday’s loss to the Sixers, it wasn’t close. The Suns scored just 34 points in the first half, and opened the second half on the wrong side of a 19-0 run that lasted over six minutes and put the game in the win column for Philadelphia.

The Sixers led by as many as 34 points on the way to a 103-83 victory, one that dropped the Suns to 0-2 for the first time since the 1996-97 season.

It may not yet be time to panic for Phoenix, but the results of the first two games — especially offensively — are certainly cause for concern.

“We’re struggling mightily right now offensively,” Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said afterward. “It’s so hard for us to get a shot off and so hard for us to get into any kind of rhythm.”

As for what’s causing the team’s struggles, Gentry feels it’s a combination of things. But continually getting off to slow starts isn’t helping.

“What has happened is, we’ve had some good looks early on that haven’t gone in, and I think we’ve probably pressed a little bit,” Gentry said. “But we’ve been a good shooting team, we’ve been a good offensive team. We’ve got to try to get that back.”

Making adjustments on the fly is much more difficult this season thanks to the lockout and the compressed regular season schedule that the delay in a labor agreement ended up causing. With the demanding slate of games, Gentry knows that pushing his team extra-hard in practice isn’t necessarily the answer.

“The practice times are very limited,” Gentry said. “We come in here tomorrow, we can’t really have a hard practice. We’ve got two games the next two days, and three in four nights. It’s just one of those things where we have to be smart about it. We have to get better and we have to try to improve, but we also have to be smart — we can’t come in here and have a two and a half hour practice.”

Just how bad has the Suns offense been so far? Small sample size and all that, but through two games, Phoenix is 24th in offensive efficiency at 90.9 points per 100 possessions. And pace-wise, the Suns are tied for 25th at 90.8 possessions per game. Contrast that with even last season’s numbers, where Phoenix finished 8th in pace and 9th in offensive efficiency — in a year when the team finished out of the playoffs — and it’s clear there are serious issues.

I asked Nash what he was seeing out there as the reason for the team’s offensive struggles.

“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things,” Nash said. “A shortened training camp, a lack of familiarity, and also we’re just not real efficient yet. We’re not making shots, we’re not in sync, and some of it is, I think, a product of a shortened camp. Some of it is we’ve got to get a little tougher at times and not look around and hope things will get better. We’ve got to be a little more determined at times.”

In Wednesday’s game, Nash appeared to be more aggressive from the start, uncharacteristically taking matters into his own hands to try to get the team going offensively. But it didn’t go all that well; Nash finished the first quarter with four points, one assist, three turnovers, and two personal fouls, while shooting 2-of-7 from the field in about nine and a half minutes of action. He said in this particular instance, his heavier than usual offensive usage was a result of the way the defense was playing him.

“I think the way they were playing the pick and roll tonight it was important for me to make ’em pay a little bit,” Nash said. “There was some space and I was getting in the lane, but I wasn’t able to get it done tonight. I think that put a lot of pressure on our offense, because then we couldn’t loosen them up or break them down and create easy opportunities.”

Nash finished with one of his worst statistical games in recent memory, going 2-of-11 from the field with just one assist and six turnovers in just over 17 minutes.

The way the Suns are currently constructed, without any one player who can be relied upon to average 20-plus points per game on a regular basis, there’s certainly more of an onus on Nash to create easy opportunities for his teammates. But at some point, there’s only so much Nash can do. At the end of the day, guys have to start knocking down open shots.

In the opener against New Orleans, the Suns shot 5-of-25 from three-point land, but many of those were wide-open looks, so the team feels those shots will eventually start to fall. Against the Sixers, the looks were there too, but more in the mid-range variety: 50 of the Suns’ 80 field goal attempts were from 10 feet out or beyond. And Phoenix only connected on 30 percent of those attempts.

Like all teams, the Suns would like to get more points in the paint, and easier opportunities at the rim. Their opponents haven’t had any problems in that area, with the Sixers scoring 50 of their 103 points in the paint, and the Hornets getting 42 of their 85 there on Monday.

It’s impossible to ignore the Suns’ struggles on offense, especially considering that’s the last place you’d expect to find problems with a team that’s been so prolific in that area in recent years. Nash just hopes things turn around sooner rather than later.

“It’s shown over the two games we’re just struggling offensively to find a connectivity and a rhythm together,” he said. “All you can do is continue to work hard and find a way to be optimistic and positive, and hopefully the breakthrough will come soon.”

Report: Kings, Hawks could pass on Luka Doncic if Suns don’t take him No. 1

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Luka Doncic or Deandre Ayton?

That’s the question many NBA fans are asking themselves, but according to one report it’s not the only thing several teams in the Top 3 of the 2018 NBA Draft are thinking about.

ESPN’s Jonathan Givony says that while the Phoenix Suns may still be considering taking Doncic with their No. 1 overall pick, the Sacramento Kings (2) and Atlanta Hawks (3) are not.

The Kings and Hawks are reportedly leaning toward taking an American frontcourt player, which would point us toward guys like Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Jaren Jackson, and Mo Bamba.

Via ESPN:

The growing consensus among NBA decision-makers in attendance at Stark Arena in Belgrade is that the teams drafting behind the Phoenix Suns at No. 1, the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks are likely to pass on European prodigy in favor of American frontcourt players. The question remains whether a team will trade up into the top three to snag Doncic, or if he will fall to the No. 4 (Memphis) or even the No. 5 pick (Dallas) after being heavily scouted in the Euroleague playoffs against Panathinaikos and mostly struggling.

The information we’re missing is whether the Kings and Hawks are turned off by Doncic specifically. Is it because they haven’t scouted him as much as the other guys? Is it because of perceived team need? Do they think Doncic has peaked already? Are they worried about less information being available from a Euro prospect? All are possible.

With all the hype around Doncic, it would be shocking to see him fall out of the Top 3. It’s happened before, but both Ayton and Doncic are the guys atop this draft that people are licking their chops to get.

Could we see a team trade up to get Doncic from the Hawks or Kings if Phoenix goes elsewhere? Is this just false information funneled to the media as a means of depressing the market for Doncic or for ferreting out a big trade offer?

The conference finals aren’t even over yet and here we are talking about the incessant drama of the NBA offseason. I love this league.

Larry Brown once told Trevor Ariza to never shoot

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Larry Brown is a legendary basketball coach, but he’s also been known to ascribe to a certain style. Brown’s regimen has sometimes rubbed players the wrong way, and likewise Brown has been overly attached to players which he likes.

For Houston Rockets wing Trevor Ariza, Brown’s staunch attitude almost ruined his career.

Ariza was a second-year player with the New York Knicks during the lone season Brown coached in the Big Apple in 2005-06. The UCLA product didn’t shoot well from the 3-point line in college or during his rookie season, so when Brown came to town he told Ariza to stop shooting from beyond the arc entirely.

Seriously.

Via Dan Woike and the LA Times:

More than a decade ago when Ariza was a second-year player, his coach with the New York Knicks, Hall of Famer Larry Brown, thought Ariza shouldn’t shoot from the perimeter. Like ever.

“He told me not to even look at the basket or shoot the ball,” said Ariza, 32. “I was definitely afraid to shoot. I just wouldn’t. I would not shoot.”

Woike’s story is pretty incredible, and goes on to detail how Ariza’s trade to the Los Angeles Lakers reignited his career and his confidence to shoot the ball. That’s obviously crucial for the Houston Rockets who need Ariza docked in the corner as Chris Paul and James Harden run pick-and-rolls and isolate.

Stories like this always sound wild, if only because they’re contextually being compared to completely different eras. Ariza was drafted in 2004, and has seen three different eras of NBA basketball (Iverson era, point guard PNR era, 3-point era) pass by during his time.

Larry Brown’s in the Hall of Fame but he whiffed on this one.

Stephen Curry goes berserk, Warriors beat Rockets by 41 in Game 3

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Stephen Curry had yet another big third quarter. Who could have seen that coming?

On the heels of the Houston Rockets’ 22-point win in Game 2, the Golden State Warriors decided to turn up the intensity as they returned home to Oakland on Sunday. The Warriors leapt out of the gate, scoring 31 points in the first quarter and playing monumental defense at the rim. Houston suffered from blown attempts in the paint for the entire first half, but it was their 3-point defense that stabilized their offense. The Rockets shot just 27 percent from beyond the arc in the first two quarters.

Then, perhaps expectedly, came the third quarter. The realm of 2-time NBA MVP Curry.

Golden State’s golden point guard failed to miss a single field goal in the quarter, helping the Warriors rally to start the half as well as fend off a Houston charge midway through the period. Curry completely took over with around six minutes left, dropping five of the Warriors’ next six made baskets.

It was enchanting, and everything we’ve come to expect from Curry when he’s at his best. After a made bucket, there was a shimmy. After a follow-up layup, a defiant stance on the baseline as he yelled to the crowd about Oracle Arena being his house.

Indeed, it was.

Curry and the Warriors did not let off the gas in the fourth quarter, finally burying the Rockets that both sides called a truce with 5:11 left, subbing out their big stars.

Houston was led by James Harden, who scored 20 points with nine assists and five rebounds, although he turned the ball over four times. Chris Paul had 13 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists. Eric Gordon helped with 11 points off the bench. The Rockets turned the ball over 20 times, allowing 28 points off turnovers to the Warriors.

For Golden State it was Curry’s 35 points and six rebounds as the big story. Kevin Durant added 25 points, six rebounds, and six assists. The Warriors shot 41 percent from 3-point range as every starter scored in double-digits. Golden State was also able to limit its turnovers to just eight.

Game 3 exemplified the stratification between the two teams. Houston was arguably the best team of the regular season, with the caveat being that Curry was out for huge swaths of time due to injury. With Curry back on the floor and playing at full tilt, Golden State again looks unbeatable.

Steve Kerr was able to counter the Game 2 strategy from Mike D’Antoni, who ran everything during Houston’s win directly at Curry on defense to tire out the recently-returned star. Kerr’s tweaks resulted in a complete eruption from Curry, one Houston was powerless to stop. Coupled with the continuous pounding from Durant and the incessant, extra pass 3-pointers, the Rockets didn’t have a counterstrike option.

Game 4 is in Oakland on Tuesday at 6:00 PM PST. We’ll see if D’Antoni can work his magic and come up with another new strategy to try and slow the Warriors.

Marcus Morris: II did a s–t job defensively against LeBron’

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The Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t dead. Not yet, at least.

LeBron James helped lead his team to a victory over the Boston Celtics on Saturday, 116-86, to set the series at 2-1 with the Cavaliers trailing.

James was efficient, scoring 27 points on 8-of-12 shooting while adding 12 assists, five rebounds, two blocks, and two steals. As a team Cleveland shot an impressive 50 percent from 3-point range, dwarfing their marks from Games 1 and 2 in the series.

Meanwhile, the team-first strategy implemented by the Celtics finally got its first big test of the Eastern Conference Finals. A top defensive team, Boston was embarrassed by how it played in Game 3 and they weren’t afraid to admit it. Four of its five starters were double-digit minuses in the box score, including Marcus Morris, who many were touting as a LeBron stopper (or LeBron slower).

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Morris gave his honest opinion of how he played vs. LeBron. Meanwhile, Jaylen Brown said he was embarrassed.

Via Twitter:

Sounds about right.

Because you play the same team over and over again, by the time you get to the conference finals it’s all about finding counters to your opponent’s counters. The game-by-game strategy changes so much, and out of necessity.

The Cavaliers finally found their sweet spot, not only from beyond the 3-point line but in limiting the offensive contributions of both Morris and guys like Al Horford.

How Brad Stevens counters Ty Lue’s Game 3 strategy should be fun to watch, and reciprocal changes in the coming games will be the story of the series. Boston still has the edge, but the Cavaliers aren’t letting someone take The King’s crown without a fight.