The Phoenix Suns will have Marcin Gortat, Channing Frye and Alex Len all vying for playing time at the center position. Here’s my HoopsHabit article on how Jeff Hornacek should manage his big men for the 2013-14 season
The Suns finished dead last in the Western Conference this year, so here’s my HoopsHabit piece grading each player’s performance this season. Spoiler alert: If my future children ever bring home a report card looking like this, they will be grounded immediately.
Oklahoma City Thunder 103, Miami Heat 87 – Kevin Durant made his case for the MVP award known loud and clear Sunday night, outplaying fellow MVP-frontrunner LeBron James in the Thunder’s dominant victory over the visiting Heat. Durant finished with 28 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists in a matchup many predict to have been a preview of this year’s NBA Finals. James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins had key contributions as well, especially during the Thunder’s second quarter run that established a lead OKC never relinquished. Despite 7 turnovers, Harden finished with 6 assists, and 19 points, 14 of which came in Oklahom City’s second quarter spurt. Perkins had a season-high 16 points while Ibaka had 19 points and 10 rebounds. Dwyane Wade led the Heat with 22 points and LeBron James pitched in 17, but the Heat never came close in the second half in a thorough win for the Thunder.
Atlanta Hawks 139, Utah Jazz 133 (4OT) – Utah’s impressive six-game win streak came to an end in a hard fought quadruple overtime game in Atlanta, the first quadruple overtime in the NBA since 1997. The Jazz fell short and were outlasted in the fourth overtime, wasting opportunities to close out the Hawks after having possession on the last play of regulation and each of the first three overtimes. Paul Millsap missed a floater in the lane in regulation. Devin Harris missed a fall-away 3-pointer in overtime. Then Harris’s shot barely rimmed out in double overtime. Finally, Millsap missed a tough 18-footer to close triple overtime. Joe Johnson led the Hawks with 37 points and 8 rebounds and hit a big three to tie the game at 113 with 7 seconds left in double overtime. Josh Smith fouled out with 22 points and 10 rebounds while Zaza Pachulia had 15 points and 20 rebounds. Al Jefferson led the Jazz with 28 points and 17 rebounds while Millsap finished with 25 points and 13 boards. Both fouled out in the final overtime. Utah still holds on to the seventh spot in the West thanks to their prior win streak, holding a tiebreaker over Houston and Denver, who also have a 26-23 record. The Hawks moved ahead of the Pacers into the fifth spot in the East and have won four straight.
Minnesota Timberwolves 117, Denver Nuggets 100 – Kevin Love followed up his 51-point game against the Thunder with a 30-point, 21-rebound effort in the Timberwolves’ blowout victory of the visiting Denver Nuggets. Minnesota, despite losing Ricky Rubio for the season and playing once again without Nikola Pekovic, is only 2 and a half games out of the eight spot in the West thanks to the recent colossal play from Love. Luke Ridnour added 25 points in the rout of a Nuggets team that is currently in the 9th spot 10 and a half games back and has lost two straight. The Nuggets played without Danilo Gallinari once again, as well as Arron Afflalo who was suspended by the league for one game for throwing an elbow at Gordon Hayward in Friday’s blowout loss to the Jazz. Denver needs to regroup if it wants to make the postseason and doesn’t look anything like the impressive squad we saw at the beginning of the year.
San Antonio Spurs 93, Philadelphia 76ers 76- Philadelphia’s lead in the Atlantic division seems to be slipping away after being routed in San Antonio. Because of Boston’s big win over the Wizards, the Sixers are only a half game ahead of the Celtics and 3 games ahead of the Knicks. The Spurs played without Tim Duncan (rest) and Gary Neal (foot sprain), while the Sixers went without Andre Iguodala (left patella tendinitis). Tony Parker led the Spurs with 21 points and 7 assists. No one from the Sixers had more than 14 points and Philadelphia only scored 27 points in the second half. The Sixers have only hit triple digits 14 times in 49 games this season.
Los Angeles Lakers 96, Memphis Grizzlies 102 – The Grizzlies got a much-needed road win in LA against the newly revamped Lakers thanks to Rudy Gay’s 18 and OJ Mayo’s 16, including a one-man 7-0 run in the fourth quarter to stretch the lead to 13. Andrew Bynum led the Lakers with 30 points and Ramon Sessions added 18, but Kobe Bryant’s slow start prevented LA from building momentum or shortening Memphis’ lead. In fact, Lakers coach Mike Brown benched Kobe for four minutes while being down 10 in the fourth quarter, drawing boos and “Ko-be!” chants from the crowd. Brown finally obliged, but not before the game was out of reach.
Cleveland Cavaliers 83, Phoenix Suns 108 – The Suns are only one game out of the eight spot in the West after throttling the Cavs on the road. Marcin Gortat finished with 22 points and 8 rebounds while Markieff Morris had 22 points of his own off the bench. Phoenix jumped out to a 59-38 lead at the half and never looked back. Cleveland’s Antawn Jamison was injured with a bruised left leg and ankle in the first quarter and left the game. He returned later in the game but was completely ineffective and finished with only 2 points. The Suns have now won six of their last eight.
Boston Celtics 88, Washington Wizards 76 – Avery Bradley’s offensive outburst of 23 points led the Celtics to a needed win over the Wizards, bringing them within a half game of the Sixers in the Atlantic division. Boston played without Michael Pietrus, who sustained a head injury against the Sixers. Ray Allen also sat out with a sore right ankle, while the Wizards went without Nene (back spasms).
Portland Trail Blazers 90, Golden State Warriors 87 – A close contest with the lowly Warriors proved to be a challenge for the Blazers until LaMarcus Aldridge stepped up in the game’s final minute. Raymond Felton lead Portland with 24 points and Aldridge finished with 18 points and 9 rebounds, including a go-ahead jumper with 39.9 seconds left and a pair of free throws to get his team a 3-point victory. Golden State rookie Charles Jenkins led the warriors with 27 points and David Lee added 16 points and 16 rebounds.
I grew up in the 90’s as a Chicago Bulls fan. How could you watch basketball as a kid and not love Michael Jordan and everything he represented? MJ, Pippen, Rodman, Harper, Kerr, Kukoc, Longley, the fans, the dark arena before tipoff, the atmosphere. It was all undeniably the best of what the NBA had to offer. But once MJ left the Bulls for good in ’98, I lost interest. And I curse my disloyal seven-year-old self for it. I abandoned a now-successful franchise just because of a few dark years, looking for the next big thing to cheer for. But I was such a depressed little seven-year-old that I made it easy and decided to support the team closest to my state of New Mexico: the Phoenix Suns.
Ever since making that decision I’ve slightly regretted it. Not that I don’t support the Suns or that I will ever switch back to being a Bulls fan (Chicago is now my second-favorite). Don’t get me wrong, I love the Suns. Three of my favorite players of all time have played for Phoenix (Grant Hill, Jason Kidd, Penny Hardaway). I now live in Phoenix and have the pleasure of watching them play. And who could forget how awesome their jerseys in the 90s were? But unfortunately, being a Phoenix Suns fan for the past few years has been a difficult experience.
I’ve already written about the Suns’ plagued history over the past few years, but there’s more to it than blowing draft picks and letting quality players go for next to nothing. The recurring theme of Suns basketball even before Amare left was a team that was good enough to compete and make the playoffs, but not quite elite enough to win championships. So Suns fans are stuck supporting the ever-aging Steve Nash and Grant Hill. They are forced to watch their Suns start each season on a rough note that leaves little promise for the year. Then they regain hope as the team picks things up, either to make an improbable run to the playoffs (which means a first-round exit) or to come up just short, simultaneously disappointing fans and ruining the Suns’ chances at higher draft picks that could turn the franchise around for the future.
And once again, the Suns find themselves in a similar situation: After starting the year at 12-19, Phoenix found its groove and rallied. In fact, before two losses to the Heat and the Magic earlier this week, the Suns were the hottest team in the NBA, winning 11 of their previous 14 games. What followed was much of the same buzz that we Suns fans are used to: talks of how veterans Steve Nash and Grant Hill have found the fountain of youth; how Jared Dudley is developing into a great shooter; how Marcin Gortat is a great big man for Nash to work with; how the bench (Shannon Brown, Michael Redd) has finally stepped up and started contributing; even how Channing Frye doesn’t stink as much as he usually does. But unfortunately, all this means is that the Suns have once again cleverly seduced me and the rest of their fanbase into believing that maybe this team could make the playoffs. Maybe they could get lucky and upset somebody if they climb high enough and hit their rhythm at the right time.
I say “unfortunately” because it’s hard to believe in the Suns. When your two oldest players are two of your best/most consistent three, you’re bound to have problems. And while I accept that Suns basketball isn’t going to win a championship this season, damn it all if I’m not going to support my mediocre team to the end and cheer for those old guys to have enough in the tank for (possibly) one last improbable playoff run. I know that the Suns are winning themselves right out of better draft picks. I know that they’re still a few games out of the eight seed in the West. And I know that it would be better for the franchise if Phoenix tanked and start rebuilding for the future. But again, DAMN IT ALL if I don’t support my team and hope that Grant Hill and Steve Nash get the chance to win one more playoff series. I’ve never supported tanking and it does get hard to cheer for such an old and sometimes laughable squad, but there’s something about being fans of the Phoenix Suns, or any basketball team in general, that makes me want to believe again.
Overtime seemed to be a theme of last night’s NBA action. Let’s take a look at which teams are going in the right direction and which squads need to start regrouping.
Contrary to my prediction that the Orlando Magic would slow down and start losing because of all the Dwight Howard trade speculation, they have done anything but that. They have not only maintained their position at the third spot in the East, but have distanced themselves from Philadelphia in the fourth spot. The Magic responded from an awful loss to the Bobcats with impressive, Howard-dominated wins over the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat (in overtime). This team will continue to go as Superman goes, but for the time being, Dwight Howard is unstoppable.
But nobody looks as underachieving as the New York Knicks right now. The Knicks are suffering a six-game losing streak, have lost eight of their last 10, and are not shaping up to be anything more than a dysfunctional team with too many scorers (although they looked a lot better in their competitive contest with the Bulls). And no, the main problem is NOT Carmelo Anthony. Jeremy Lin’s offensive production has declined, but the biggest problem in NY has been Mike D’Antoni. I’ve never thought much of D’Antoni’s coaching, and this stretch of losing with so much talent isn’t helping. Another giant problem is Amare Stoudemire, underachieving on both ends of the floor while taking up the majority of the Knicks cap space ($83 million through 2015 to be exact). When Amare, Lin and Melo play well at the same time, they give you competitive performances against teams like the league-leading Bulls. But then you’ve got distractions like JR Smith’s semi-nude pictures on Twitter and all of the media-frenzied “Is Melo the Knicks’ Problem?” controversy. I still think the Knicks will turn things around, but they have fallen out of the number 8 spot in the East, giving it up to…
The Milwaukee Bucks! The Bucks are currently in playoff contention in the East thanks to the Knicks’ losing streak, but also because of their winning streak. The Bucks have won three in a row because of Ersan Ilyasova’s emergence as a superstar. Illyasova is averaging 21 ppg in March so far and has established himself as a great offensive threat. However, Drew Gooden’s revitalization should not be undervalued either. This has all been done without the help of Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson, who were traded yesterday to Golden State in exchange for dynamic scorer Monta Ellis. Things are looking up for the Bucks in the East, especially if the Knicks continue to struggle. But they should keep watch out for the two teams right behind them.
Which includes the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs are led by Antawn Jamison’s scoring presence and rookie star Kyrie Irving’s ability to close games (which he does with intelligence by taking the ball to the rim instead of settling for isolation plays that lead to low percentage jumpshots). Despite their losing record (like the Bucks), Cleveland is still in the playoff hunt.
Speaking of the Indiana Pacers, this team has not lived up to expectations. While I stand behind them as my sleeper pick in the East, they haven’t been getting the quality wins they’ve needed to establish themselves as legitimate contenders, losing four straight before a rebound win over the hapless Blazers. Admittedly, those four loses were against the Bulls, Hawks, Heat and Magic, but this young team needs these type of wins, not only to send a message to the rest of the East, but to gain confidence for when the postseason rolls around. The Pacers have gone 0-for-2 on that front.
The Dallas Mavericks were on a downward spiral lately, losing eight of their last ten before defeating the Wizards last night. Their losing streak dropped them to the seventh spot in the West and was made even worse considering the majority of those losses came to teams under .500 (New Jersey, New Orleans, Phoenix, Sacramento and Golden State). I still believe the Mavs can be competitive in the postseason, but the same could be said of the Lakers last year, who claimed they would be dangerous in the playoffs despite dropping games during the regular season. And we all know how that turned out.
Remember when the Denver Nuggets were losing games and not even in the top eight in the West? Those days are over. The Nuggets have won six of their last 10 and are currently the six seed in the West. But what’s most encouraging is that Danilo Gallinari and Nene’s return wasn’t even the primary reason for Denver’s surge; now that these two stars are almost back in rhythm, watch out.
I’ve already written about the Memphis Grizzlies climbing in the West, but what’s up with the Phoenix Suns? Despite the fact that they were far back in the standings in the West, they have won seven of their last 10 and seem to be turning things around. Steve Nash continues to set up Marcin Gortat for success while Grant Hill and Jared Dudley have steadily increased their production on both ends of the floor. Suns fans should hold their breath for a playoff appearance (both because Phoenix still has a long way to go and because tanking would secure a better draft pick), but this might be a team worth watching if this success continues.
The Minnesota Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets suffered season-altering blows in the form of injuries to their star point guards. Ricky Rubio is out for the season with a torn ACL while Kyle Lowry’s bacterial infection will keep him sidelined for two to four weeks, during a critical stretch of Houston’s schedule with the Rockets teetering at the number eight seed in the West. These teams still have playoff hopes and the Rockets did get a great win against the Thunder last night, but these critical injuries will make it difficult on them.
Finally, the battle for L.A. and the Pacific division seems to have swung to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Los Angeles Clippers continue to struggle without Chauncey Billups while the Lakers have won seven of their last 10. During that stretch, LA has beaten the Heat and got an huge double-overtime win in Memphis last night, looking like the much more playoff-competent team right now, especially with Bynum and Gasol getting more touches. Vinny del Negro is coaching his quality team into the ground, and even with Billups’ absence, the Clippers problems are inexcusable.
Here are the scores from around the league and the major headlines:
Boston Celtics 115, New York Knicks 111 – The Celtics beat the Knicks at home in overtime after Paul Pierce hit a tough contested three to tie the game in regulation. Pierce ended up with 34, which was overshadowed by Rajon Rondo’s historic triple double of 18 points, 17 rebounds and 20 assists. Only two other players have recorded a 15-15-15 triple double in the last 25 years (Jason Kidd and Magic Johnson). Talks of trading Rondo will likely die down now, even though the Celtics probably need to make some changes to stay competitive in the East. Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks with 25 points and had a few key buckets to give the Knicks the lead before Pierce forced overtime. Jeremy Lin struggled, finishing with 14 points and 6 turnovers. He’ll need to work on keeping his turnovers down while increasing his scoring and distributing for the Knicks to be contenders this year.
Los Angeles Lakers 93, Miami Heat 83 – Kobe Bryant and the Lakers made a statement with their ten-point victory over the visiting Miami Heat. Kobe started out the night with 18 points in the first quarter and singlehandedly set the tone for his team early on. Kobe finished with 33 and has scored 30+ in each of his last three games while wearing the mask to protect his nose. LeBron James led the Heat with 25 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks, but it still wasn’t enough for a Miami side that was down the whole game. The Masked Mamba showed his competitive fire from the start while LeBron, who had a good game, couldn’t carry the load with Chris Bosh out and Dwyane Wade fouling out in the 4th. The Heat probably win this game with Bosh on the floor, but watch out for the Lakers in the West. They are looking like a completely different team from the beginning of the season behind Kobe’s hot hand.
Denver Nuggets 99, San Antonio Spurs 94 – Ty Lawson flirted with a triple double as the Nuggets edged the Spurs in Manu Ginobili’s return to the court. Lawson finished with 22 points, 11 assists and 9 rebounds, and also hit a critical jumper that put Denver up by three and sealed the deal. Gary Neal tried to tie it up on the Spurs’ final possession but his 3-pointer rimmed out, resulting in San Antonio’s third loss of the season at home. Tony Parker led the Spurs with 25. The Nuggets have now won three in a row without Danilo Gallinari or Nene. This game also showed off Kenneth Faried’s incredible athletic ability. Look for him to continue to evolve his game, he could develop into quite the role player for Denver.
Chicago Bulls 96, Philadelphia 76ers 91 – Derrick Rose tied his season high of 35 points and added 7 assists in a spectacular performance as the Bulls got a road victory over the 76ers. Chicago avenged a loss earlier in the season and led for most of the second half but couldn’t quite close the deal, missing free throws down the stretch. Joakim Noah has 11 points and 18 rebounds for the Bulls, who now own the best record in the NBA at 31-8. Andre Iguodala had two good looks for threes in the fourth that would have kept the Sixers alive, but air-balled them both. The Sixers have now lost seven of their last nine games.
Los Angeles Clippers 105, Houston Rockets 103 – Chris Paul was clutch again for the Clippers down the stretch, giving Los Angeles a solid win on the road in overtime. Paul led the way with 28 points and 10 assists, including 3 crucial points in the final minute of overtime. The Rockets have now lost three games in a row. The Clippers still hold on to a slim lead over the Lakers in the Pacific.
New Jersey Nets 104, Charlotte Bobcats 101 – Deron Williams has a historic night of his own, putting up 57 points to set a Nets’ franchise record. Williams’ 57 is the highest scoring total in the NBA so far this season. Williams was a perfect 21-for-21 from the free throw line. The Bobcats still only have four wins on the season.
Phoenix Suns 96, Sacramento Kings 88 – The Suns won their third in a row behind Steve Nash and Marcin Gortat, erasing a double-digit deficit in the second half, also for the third game in a row. Nash had 19 points while Gortat had 14 points and 17 rebounds. This is the longest winning streak for the Suns this season, and has helped put Phoenix only a few games behind the 8th spot in the Western Conference.
Toronto Raptors 83, Golden State Warriors 75 – DeMar DeRozan scored 25 for Toronto, leading the Raptors to a victory over Mark Jackson’s Warriors. Golden State was up by nine at halftime but only scored 11 points in the third quarter. David Lee led the way with 22 points and 12 rebounds for the Warriors, who have now lost six of their last nine.
Before you say, “Everything!”, laugh, and leave the page, let me remind you of something. Just two years ago, the Phoenix Suns finished with a 54-28 record and were legitimate contenders in the Western Conference Finals. Two years ago, Alvin Gentry was putting an emphasis on defense that was actually effective when matched up with D’Antoni’s offensive run-and-gun style that was embedded in the team’s DNA. Two years ago, the Suns had a great starting lineup (Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, a younger Grant Hill, an athletic Jason Richardson and the up-and-coming Robin Lopez) and one of the best benches in the league in Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, Lou Amundson and Leandro Barbosa. What happened? As an avid Suns fan through thick and thin, I have to put a little blame on Ron Artest (or Metta World Peace, now) and a lot of blame on poor management.
Let’s cover Artest first. Despite being undersized throughout the series against the Lakers’ big men, the Suns were one good box-out (nice going, J-Rich) and one Artest buzzer-beater away from taking a commanding 3-2 lead in the Western Conference Finals. Barring that miraculous shot from heaven (or hell, if you resent Artest as much as I do), the Suns had a chance at making the NBA Finals. They had a chance at keeping Amare interested in staying in Phoenix. But maybe most important of all, they had a chance to seize the moment and win a championship before old age started to take its toll.
Most Suns fans know what happened from there: poor management. Keep in mind that this is the same organization that gave up Joe Johnson to Atlanta for Boris Diaw. This is the organization that notoriously traded draft picks year after year for cash considerations and future draft picks. What type of players, you ask? Oh, just players like Luol Deng (2004), Nate Robinson (2005), Rajon Rondo (2006) and Rudy Fernandez (2007). But after all of that, the Suns couldn’t possibly let Amare go without getting anything good in return, right?
Wrong. Amare leaves for New York. Grant Hill’s age starts to catch up with him and he can only kick in about 10 points a game while being the defensive stopper. Amundson is gone. Robin Lopez fails to develop into the quality center he showed signs of in the playoffs. But worst of all, Suns management makes a series of questionable moves to try and generate some excitement after losing Amare, rather than trying to find a replacement big man. So in comes Hakim Warrick. Josh Childress. Hedo Turkoglu. A trade soon after with Orlando that exchanged Turkoglu and one dunker past his prime (J-Rich) for another dunker WAY past his prime (Vince Carter, who admittedly is doing well with Dallas now), along with Michael Pietrus and Marcin Gortat. Then Dragic gets shipped off to Houston for Aaron Brooks.
Looking at that list, you might think, “Well that’s not so bad. Turkoglu does just fine in Orlando, Gortat is a great center now, Aaron Brooks is solid, and Vince Carter is making highlights again!” But unfortunately, these acquisitions did little for the Suns during their stay in Phoenix. Gortat saw limited time behind a weak Channing Frye and a disappointing Lopez, Turkoglu’s game was hit-or-miss before he was shipped off, Brooks wasn’t the elite backup to Nash he showed promise of being (leaving for China doesn’t help) and Vince Carter just looked downright bad at times. The team didn’t gel, and Alvin Gentry found that his team could no longer put up big points OR play defense.
Fast forward to this year, after the Suns miss the playoffs and talks of trading Nash and Hill are at their strongest. Grant Hill is my personal favorite player of all time (other than MJ) and Nash has done so much for the franchise, so I blow these talks off as ridiculous. But now it seems those dissenting fans and analysts were right. Management’s version of making quality moves to improve the Suns’ weak areas included signing Shannon Brown to a team already overstocked on forwards along with has-been Sebastian Telfair. And while Markieff Morris was a good draft pick (finally), the Suns still find themselves as incompetent as ever. You can chalk it up to old age, inconsistent play from role players, and Gentry’s insufferable habit of changing of the lineup because of the inconsistency, but no matter what, the result is another year of weak Suns basketball.
Childress, Warrick, Telfair, Brown, Lopez and Michael Redd were all poor decisions involving players that either never lived up to their full potential or are past their prime. Channing Frye gets big minutes every game and continues to do little as a big man or as a shooter. Gortat is developing into quite the player and Dudley and Morris may be great in a few years, but by that time, Nash and Hill will be gone. As a Suns fan, I was extremely pleased not only with Nash and Hill’s tenure in Phoenix for so long, but also with their affirmations of their love for the city and the team. But at this point, I almost wish Hill had signed with the Bulls and that the Suns could get something good for Nash while he still has value. Because when Nash and Hill retire (and it will most likely be in Phoenix), Suns fans are in for some dark rebuilding years.