NBA @ 2: Can Suns Make a Push into Top Eight?
After a difficult start to the season, the Phoenix Suns suddenly find themselves in ninth place in the Western Conference, just a half game behind the eighth-seeded Houston Rockets.
The Suns didn’t make some blockbuster deal to set things right after a 4-9 start. Instead they’ve slowly recovered from both four and five-game losing streaks by sticking together and fighting from behind.
“We played well. We’ve had some good wins and some tough losses,” said Coach Alvin Gentry. “I think everything is kind of tightening up and it’s going to come down to the last couple of weeks of the season, really the last couple of games of the season for as far as position, being in or out of the playoffs.”
The Suns have won 11 of their last 14 games.
“We’re just trying to work out stuff and become consistent and try to work ourselves into a position where we can be a playoff team,” said Gentry.
Admittedly the recent stretch has been home-heavy. The Suns are 15-10 in Phoenix but just 8-12 on the road. Still, they were able to beat the Clippers in Los Angeles despite playing without both Steve Nash and Grant Hill (who were rested for the middle game of a back-to-back-to-back).
“You’re going to have to do it on the road,” said Gentry. “Our problem is that we were not playing well early in the year and we had some tough home losses against Cleveland, against New Jersey, against Toronto and somewhere along the line you have to come up with some really good wins on the road to compensate for what you didn’t do at home.”
Naturally there was a lot of external speculation that the Suns might trade Nash but internally that wasn’t a real consideration. Unless Steve pushed for an exit (which he didn’t), Phoenix had no desire to deal him.
“I was never really worried about it,” said Gentry on the trade deadline. “We knew what we had planned and what we were going to do but it’s good to have it past. I think all the teams now can settle down, do what they feel is going to be good as far as trying to play for playoff position.”
Now, can the Suns keep up the momentum? This week they’ll visit the Miami HEAT, Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers and Cleveland Cavaliers over a six-day span. In April, Phoenix will play a stretch with seven of eight on the road.
The Suns are still getting tremendous numbers from Nash despite his age (38-years old), shooting 54.4% from the field, 40.2% from the arc and 88.5% from the line . . . all while dishing 11.3 assists and scoring 13.4 points per game.
Hill has shaken off a difficult start to the season and is the team’s fifth double-digit scorer.
“[Grant's] become, in the latter part of his career, he’s become even a better defender,” said Gentry. “I think and he’s been really consistent in what he does and he’s a really smart player, a very smart player and he’s also a very competitive guy so he’s done a great job. We’ve asked him to guard ones, twos, threes, and fours and he’s responded and done a real good job on those.”
Hill will turn 40 in October.
It’s the 27-year old center Marcin Gortat who leads the team at 16 points a game along with 10.1 boards. The Suns are also getting a steady contribution from forward Jared Dudley.
Veteran Michael Redd, coming off of multiple knee injuries the past few years, has played in 30 games and has been known to blow up for 20 points or more on occasion.
The Suns aren’t a perfect team but Gentry has a lot of pieces to work with. They’ll be tested over the next week but the Houston Rockets ahead of them are struggling. The opportunity is there but then the Utah Jazz are tied with Phoenix at 23-22 and are another threat to burst into the top eight.
I’s not a given the Suns make the postseason, especially with the number of road games remaining, but given their start, they’re happy to be back in the hunt.
No Bobby Simmons . . . Yet
The Clippers let forward Simmons leave as a free agent after his pair of ten-day contracts expired. Simmons played in 13 games, averaging 3.5 points per game while shooting 37.1% from three (but just 30.8% overall).
LA hasn’t ruled against bringing him back for the rest of the season.
“Bobby’s been terrific. He’s done everything we’ve could have asked him to do in order for us to make that commitment but we’re going to keep evaluating it,” said Vice President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey. “I just want to make sure there’s minutes there for him. Bobby’s kind of rebuilt his career since he’s gotten here. He was a classy guy (went to the D-League) but I want to make sure for him there’s going to be an opportunity here in terms of minutes.”
The team will take the next week or so to see what free agents hit the waiver wire before filling that 15th roster spot.
The Clippers recently traded for guard Nick Young who has made one appearance for LA, scoring nine points in 29 minutes (taking eight trips to the free throw line).
LA has been uneven recently although guard Chris Paul has come up big the past couple of games to help carry the team.
“I think when you’re losing to sub-.500 teams it’s alarming,” said Olshey. “I think we haven’t put the hammer down on teams. I think we’ve kind of played the game more to get into the last three minutes and put a lot of pressure on Chris [Paul] to close out games.”
Olshey notes that Coach Vinny Del Negro has been forced to adjust to a fluctuating roster on the fly, without the benefit of much practice time.
“Vinny went from preparing all summer for a Mo Williams, Eric Gordon backcourt to a Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups backcourt, to a Chris Paul, Randy Foye backcourt to, and it’s hard,” said Olshey. “We’ve got like 25 games left at this point and we’re in a sprint to the finish . . . the margin for error has certainly decreased.”
Now with Young, the Clippers need to see some improvement under Del Negro. They’ve won two straight after a very shaky stretch and both the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks are right behind LA in the standings.
Olshey expects Nick to help balance the team, notably by moving Foye to the bench and playing both guard and small forward. Del Negro likes to put three guards on the floor and Young can help make up for the lack of size.
“What’s happened is teams are loading up on the strong side again against our bigs, making the ball get out of Mo [Williams'] hands and then we’ve got non-playmakers trying to make plays instead of being the finishers that they are,” said Olshey. “I think now when you’ve got both wings filled and the top filled with anybody that can be a pick-and-roll threat, get guys off balance or try and recover late so I think that’s where Randy’s asset is really going to come in as a two/three.”
The Clippers will play three in three nights on the road in Indiana, Oklahoma City and New Orleans before a five-game home-stand to finish out the month.
Gallinari Breaks Thumb
The Denver Nuggets can’t seem to catch a break with small forward Danilo Gallinari who broke his left thumb Monday night playing against the Dallas Mavericks.
Gallinari had just returned from an ankle sprain that kept him out a month, now he’s looking at missing another four weeks. Fortunately the injury is on his non-shooting hand.
The hope is that Danilo can return ahead of schedule with some help from the training staff.
The Nuggets are currently 25-21, seventh in the West but just two full games behind the fourth-seeded Clippers. Below, the Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns, Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers are still within range of overtaking Denver should the Nuggets slump.
Working against them is schedule with 26 of the team’s 46 already played at home. That means 13 more on the road but to date, the Nuggets have been impressive away with an 11-9 record.
Denver recently re-signed small forward Wilson Chandler who was playing overseas for most of the season. He should fill in nicely for Gallinari.
The team also traded away long-time big-man Nene to the Washington Wizards for young center JaVale McGee. Rookie Kenneth Faried has earned a role with his athleticism and rebounding.
Guard Andre Miller did recently injure his shoulder but he’s someone who rarely ever misses games (his status is unclear). After a home game against the Detroit Pistons on Monday, Denver will hit the road for seven-straight (likely without Gallinari).
If Coach George Karl can get the most out of this talented roster and get everyone healthy in time for the postseason, the Nuggets will be a difficult playoff opponent for almost any team.
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