Are the Phoenix Suns Ready to Be Western Conference Spoilers?

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Are the Phoenix Suns Ready to Be Western Conference Spoilers?
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns are the David to the NBA’s Goliath, and they’re embracing the underdog role beautifully.

Head coach Jeff Hornacek’s crew has proven time and time again that it can compete with any team in the NBA. The Suns showed that fight again on March 6 by dispatching the Oklahoma City Thunder, 128-122, after surrendering 41 first-quarter points.

Gerald Green led the way by pouring in a career-high 41 points on 12-of-22 shooting. He drained eight three-point attempts and cashed in on nine of his 11 free throws.

Phoenix also got a huge boost off the bench from the Morris twins. Markieff and Marcus combined for 39 points, nine rebounds and five assists. When they produce by solidifying the Suns’ second unit, they make their team virtually unbeatable.

On top of it all, Goran Dragic is performing at a high enough level to warrant serious MVP consideration, and Phoenix has yet to see Eric Bledsoe return from a knee injury—he’s expected to make his comeback in the next week, per AZCentral Sports’ Paul Coro.

The stars are aligning in Phoenix, but can the upstart Suns play spoiler in the postseason if they manage to earn a playoff seed at season’s end?

 

Various Weapons

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Part of what makes the Suns so dangerous to opponents is the plethora of options Coach Hornacek has at his disposal.

“They’ve all done something more than they’ve done last year,” the first-year head coach said, per AZ Central Sports’ Paul Coro.

Dragic and a healthy Bledsoe are the offensive leaders in the backcourt, but a collection of different guys has shown the ability to pick up the slack.

Green is the most obvious candidate, having just dropped a career-high 41 points on OKC. He’s been absolutely unconscious from downtown, and his highlight dunks have the inherent power to swing momentum into the Suns’ favor.

He’s scored 20 points or more 18 times and has hit the 30-point plateau in four of those affairs.

The quick release on his outside shot is downright deadly. If defenders fail to crowd Green, he’ll simply rise up and drain shots from the perimeter. Of course, opponents have to pick their poison, because the hyper-athletic swingman has shown the ability to take his man off the dribble and finish at the rim if they take away his outside shot.

“The coaches have really done a great job of putting us in places to be successful,” Green said, per Coro. “Everybody gets an opportunity to go out there and play. Jeff has confidence in everybody. A lot of coaches don’t do that. He’s just so positive and has so much energy and faith in us.”

Another streaky shooter on the roster is veteran big man Channing Frye. Unlike most players his size, the University of Arizona product is extremely comfortable popping out to the perimeter in order to knock down the three-ball.

NBA.com/Stats
Channing Frye's 2013-14 shot chart.

According to NBA.com/Stats, the 30-year-old is draining 42.9 percent of his threes from the top of the key and 43.2 percent of his long-range attempts from the right wing—both of those numbers are above league average.

Channing has gone into a slump of late—scoring double-digit points in just one of his past seven appearances—but his ability to spread the floor and open up driving lanes for perimeter players has been an invaluable cog in Phoenix’s offense all season long.

The starters have set the tone for Coach Hornacek, but the bench production often means the difference between a win and a loss.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Markieff and Marcus Morris have carved a niche on the Suns as valuable bench options—Keef is even making a case for Sixth Man of the Year consideration. If the 24-year-old brothers are contributing, the Suns become incredibly difficult to beat.

Phoenix is 10-4 when Markieff scores at least 20 points. When his younger brother posts 15 or more, the Suns are even more impressive at 12-3.

In a must-read article on the Morris bros, B/R's Jonathan Wasserman points out that Markieff's mid-range shooting has improved dramatically since entering the league.

Markieff's Mid-Range Shooting By Year
Year Mid-Range Shooting Percentage
2013-14 43.9%
2012-13 36.4%
2011-12 27.4%

NBA.com

Both brothers can hit hit mid-range jumpers, shoot threes, rebound and play a solid two-man game (often times with one another).

Unlike the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers—teams that rank 28th and 30th in bench points per game, respectively, per HoopsStats—the Suns have been able to rely on their second unit.

That depth will provide a valuable spark during a grueling seven-game playoff series. It’s a luxury that other teams simply do not have.

 

P.J. Tucker’s Impact

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In order to properly appreciate what the Suns have been able to do this season in the face of media scrutiny and basement-level expectations, P.J. Tucker has to be part of the conversation.

The former Texas Longhorn has carved a niche in the NBA by taking great pride in his lockdown defense.

Houston Rockets All-Star shooting guard James Harden is shooting 45.6 percent from the field overall in 2013-14. Against Tucker and the Suns, that mark plummets to just 31 percent.

Pacers All-Star forward Paul George also struggled against the desert dwellers on Jan. 30, finishing with just 12 points on 5-of-17 shooting—credit Tucker.

The gritty 28-year-old is no longer a one-trick pony, though.

NBA.com/Stats
P.J. Tucker's 2013-14 shot chart.

According to NBA.com/Stats, Tucker is shooting a scorching-hot 52.9 percent on corner threes from the left side of the court. Fans have grown accustom to the small forward draining those looks and immediately spinning around to view the reactions of the opposing team’s bench.

While Tucker doesn’t have the capability to completely shut down the likes of LeBron James, Paul George, Kevin Durant or others, they can be sure that they’ll have to fight for every basket.

KD said the following of Tucker after OKC’s loss in Phoenix, per Coro:

“P.J. is my guy. We compete against each other. I think I compete against him harder than anybody that I play against.”

Tucker will continue to be invaluable for the Suns because he’s willing to guard the opposing team’s best player with the tenacity of a rabid wolverine.

 

Bledsoe’s Return

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Eric Bledsoe has only been able to play 24 games in his first year for Phoenix, but he was stellar in a limited sample size.

The 24-year-old averaged 18 points, 5.8 assists and 4.3 rebounds for Coach Hornacek when he was suiting up. The Suns compiled a 16-8 record during that span.

Now that he’s set to return in the next week, Phoenix will be close to full strength for the first time in more than two months.

Fans should temper their expectations, though, because Hornacek said, “We might bring Eric in off the bench a little bit,” as a means of working him back into the rotation, per Coro.

His presence should be a huge boost to the team’s morale regardless of his initial role, but the biggest concern is that Bledsoe will hinder Green’s maturation process.

The high-flying swingman is averaging 17.3 points per game as a starter and just 11.4 off the bench, per NBA.com/Stats. He’s clearly been more comfortable as a member of the starting five, but he still has the ability to provide instant offense off the sidelines.

As long as the Bledsoe/Dragic backcourt continues to jell, they’ll be a nightmare for other teams to prepare for.

 

Giant Killers

The “David vs. Goliath” narrative is an appropriate one for the Phoenix Suns, because they’ve repeatedly shown up against the NBA’s elite.

Phoenix has racked up a 9-6 record against the Trail Blazers, Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers.

That success is a major testament to the team’s preparation and will to compete. Ironically, the Suns have a better record against those six contenders (three games over .500) than they do on the road (14-13).

Three teams that Phoenix simply hasn’t been able to figure out, however, are the two-time defending champion Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies. They’re 1-7 against those foes, and the only win came against an injury-depleted Spurs roster.

The biggest concern from that stat is the struggles against San Antonio, because that would be the Suns’ first-round matchup if the playoffs started today.

All in all, though, Phoenix has hung tough with the league’s best teams. That’s an encouraging precursor for fans hoping to see a first-round playoff upset.

 

Can They Pull An Upset?

With star power (Bledsoe and Dragic), a defensive-minded glue guy (Tucker) and various role players that can swing games (Green, Frye and the Morris twins), the Suns have the pieces needed to upset a higher seed.

If the Suns get into the playoffs, will they win their first-round matchup?

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Coach Hornacek has instilled confidence in everyone on the roster and has a plethora of guys playing the best basketball of their respective careers.

The Suns managed to beat the Thunder (the top team in the West) without Bledsoe, Miles Plumlee and Leandro Barbosa, so there’s no reason to believe they can’t continue to surprise NBA fans.

As long as Phoenix plays as a unit, embraces team chemistry and has different players shoulder the load, this team can certainly make some playoff noise.

General manager Ryan McDonough said in an interview with Suns.com’s Greg Esposito after the 2014 trade deadline:

They’re happy for (teammates’) success. That’s special, and it’s relatively rare in pro sports, I think. […] We feel like the guys truly do like each other and they’ve kind of bought in for a common goal. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve had the success we’ve had so far.

If nothing else, this team has a lot of moxie. Overall inexperience may hold them back, but don’t be surprised if the Suns put a scare into a superior seed, because they've gone above and beyond to earn the league's respect.

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