ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Phoenix Suns

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Last season: The Suns were one of the league’s pleasant surprises, racking up 48 wins and just barely missing the playoffs during a season where expectations were essentially the exact opposite. No one expected a starting lineup that featured Channing Frye, P.J. Tucker and Miles Plumlee to be capable of that much, but the team played cohesively under first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek, and with Goran Dragic playing at a level that earned him third-team All-NBA honors, along with a resurgent Gerald Green, the competent Morris twins, and half a season of Eric Bledsoe (did I get everybody?), Phoenix became a League Pass favorite early in the season.

Signature highlight from last season: The primary reason for the unexpected success the Suns experienced was their ability to play as a unit, while getting important contributions from multiple players on a nightly basis. This particular clip showcases that — Plumlee gets things started with a rejection at the rim, Frye saves the ball from going out of bounds to Bledsoe, who goes the length of the floor and absorbs the contact for the impressive and-1 finish.

Key offseason moves:

Keys to the Suns season:

The health of Eric Bledsoe: The Suns were very good with Bledsoe in the lineup last season, posting a record of 28-15 in the games he played against a 20-19 record when he was sidelined due to injury. Phoenix invested heavily in Bledsoe’s potential, inking him to a five-year deal worth $70 million this summer. The problem is that Bledsoe has had two seasons — last year in Phoenix, and 2012 with the Clippers — where he was only available for half of his team’s games. There’s no question he shined statistically when finally getting his chance to play as part of the starting lineup, posting career-best averages of 17.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.5 assists in 32.9 minutes per contest. But for the Suns to improve upon last season’s success, they’ll need Bledsoe to be around for the bulk of his team’s games.

Replacing the production of Channing Frye: Frye was allowed to walk in free agency, which is fine if the Suns feel that they can replace what he does with the guys in place on the roster. It may not be as easy as it seems — Frye averaged 11.1 points and 5.1 rebounds, while shooting 37 percent from three-point distance, and starting in all 82 regular season contests. He played the stretch-four role to perfection, which helped the spacing and opened things up for Dragic and Bledsoe to get to the basket. It’s unclear where Hornacek will turn for a long-term solution here; he’s started Markieff Morris and Anthony Tolliver at times during the preseason. Morris was Sixth Man of the Year material last season, however, so the Suns might want to keep him in that role. If Tolliver can fill Frye’s shoes, it would be a huge relief for the team on the offensive end of the floor.

Living up to expectations: The Suns surprised last season, for all of the reasons mentioned above. Teams weren’t prepared for the level of execution that Phoenix brought on a game-by-game basis, and the fact that the Suns were able to get off to fast starts while their opponents got their bearings undoubtedly helped the team’s winning cause, especially during the first half of the season. Phoenix won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year, however, so playing as a good team may change things a bit if the team isn’t properly focused.

Why you should watch: Dragic and Bledsoe are one of the most exciting backcourts in the game, and the addition of another speedy guard in Isaiah Thomas may make for some dazzling lineups. Phoenix’s style is intoxicating, and when things are really clicking, this team is a joy to watch.

Prediction: The Suns are well-positioned to surpass last year’s win total and make a run at one of the final two postseason spots in the Western Conference. The addition of Thomas gives the team even more firepower off the bench, and if Plumlee and Markieff Morris continue to improve, there’s no reason Phoenix can’t continue to surprise, and make a return to the playoffs in the upcoming season.

Memphis picks up first win since restart, beats Oklahoma City

Memphis win
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Dillon Brooks scored 22 points, and the Memphis Grizzlies claimed their first win since the restart with a 121-92 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.

Jonas Valanciunas had 19 points and 11 rebounds and Ja Morant had 19 points and nine assists for the Grizzlies.

Memphis shot 55% and avoided falling into a tie with Portland for eight place in the Western Conference standings. Memphis is one game ahead of Portland, two games ahead of San Antonio, 2.5 ahead of Phoenix, and three games up on New Orleans and Sacramento.

Chris Paul scored 17 points and Luguentz Dort added 16 for the Thunder. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City’s leading scorer this season, finished with 10 points on 3 for 13 shooting.

The Thunder looked nothing like the team that rolled past the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday. Oklahoma City missed a chance to move into a tie with the Houston Rockets for fourth place in the West.

Oklahoma City led by 18 in the first quarter, but the Grizzlies rallied to take the lead in the second. Memphis led by nine in the final seconds of the first half. Danilo Gallinari hit a 3 for the Thunder with 4.6 seconds left, then Paul stole the inbounds pass and hit a corner 3 to cut the Grizzlies’ lead to 63-60 at halftime.

The Grizzlies outscored the Thunder 32-18 in the third quarter to go up 95-78 at the end of the period.

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

Indiana coach hot seat
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Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Phoenix Suns, a perfect 4-0 in the bubble, are growing and thinking playoffs

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last time Devin Booker walked off the court as a winner in four consecutive games, these were the opponents: Hampton, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

That is, until now.

Booker and the Phoenix Suns – the team that came to the NBA restart at Walt Disney World with the worst record in the Western Conference and the second-worst record of the 22 teams in the field – are perhaps the best story of the bubble.

They’re 4-0 at Disney, breathing real life into playoff hopes that basically were nonexistent when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. It’s the team’s first four-game winning streak since December 2018; Booker missed one of those games, so it’s his first run of four wins in a row since helping Kentucky make its Final Four run in 2015.

“It definitely feels like a tournament, a big AAU tournament, the March Madness tournament,” Phoenix’s Cameron Payne said Friday. “That’s something I never even got a chance to be in, but hey, I’ll take this.”

The Suns started their bubble run with a win over Washington and followed that with victories against three playoff-bound teams – first Dallas, then the Los Angeles Clippers (both of those games being 117-115 finals, the win over the Clippers sealed by a Booker buzzer-beater) and next a 114-99 victory Thursday over Indiana.

A team that had a stretch of four wins in 20 games during November and December, then a run of four wins in 15 games during January and February, got to the bubble and are now 4-for-4.

The Suns are riding a 10-year playoff drought, the second-longest current one in the NBA, but now they’re thinking big and for good reason.

“Well, you know, this is in the fledgling stages, for sure,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. And there’s a process that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves involved in and we’re going to stick to that. So, fun? I don’t have time to have fun right now. It’s always good to win, but I’m working right now. And I want guys to understand, it’s fun when you win – but then you’ve got to turn the page and get right back to work.”

Williams understands the reality for the Suns right now. They entered Friday 1-1/2 games out of ninth place and the play-in series that will decide the last postseason berth in the West. And while the 4-0 start has been noteworthy, even an 8-0 mark in the seeding games wouldn’t guarantee the Suns a trip to that play-in round.

The Suns play Miami on Saturday, then finish the regular season against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Dallas.

“I’ve been in five years now and haven’t had that much success,” Booker said. “But, you know, I’m working hard every day to turn that narrative and change that narrative. We have a good bunch in here to do it. A lot of young players mixed with some veteran presence and it’s a good look for us. So, we’re going to keep our head down, keep working.

“I don’t think anybody here is worried about 4-0. We still have plans and goals for this team to reach and 4-0 wasn’t it.”

Booker is averaging 28 points in the four games. Deandre Ayton, another big piece of the young Suns’ core, is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. There are six players averaging double figures in all, including Payne, who is shooting 53% from 3-point range in his first four games with the Suns.

“We definitely feel good,” Payne said. “We’re not here for no reason.”

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.