PHOENIX — For all that went wrong last season, this much went right: The Phoenix Suns were actually decent at stealing the basketball.
(Now, what they did when they got the basketball — that’s an entirely different story.)
A year ago, the Suns ranked 15th, averaging eight steals a game, the most since 2003-04 when a 29-53 team averaged nine steals a game.
Of course it helped having Goran Dragic, who was the 10th-best player at swiping the ball away from the opponent.
This season they add the 16th-best player: Eric Bledsoe, who, as a reserve with the Los Angeles Clippers, had almost a steal-and-a-half per game.
With Dragic and Bledsoe together, the Suns not only believe they have dramatically improved their backcourt, but improved their on-ball pressure, an area that’s been lacking in recent years, as teams get into their offense.
“We want to have active hands, get our hands on the ball. That’s going to allow us to get easy buckets,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said.
It did in the preseason opener Monday night versus Maccabi Haifa.
The Suns scored 17 fastbreak points off of 16 steals, two more than their season-high last year.
“We’re going to pressure people,” P.J. Tucker said.
“We’re going to get in people. We’re going to deny wings. We’re going to deny cutters. We’re going to fight through screens, so yeah; we’re going to get (steals). Maybe not as high as last night, but I think that’s definitely an emphasis when you got guys like me and Bledsoe, tough, hard-nosed defenders that pretty much know how to get after it. (And) Goran is naturally just good at steals.”
Dragic did not have a steal against Maccabi Haifa, but Tucker and Bledsoe each had five, matching their opponent’s total.
“It’s just an instinct I have,” said Bledsoe, who averaged 2.5 steals in 12 starts.
“I feel like if I’ve got a steal, why not get it. We need the ball, so at the end of the day, we’ve got to play defense. I like it.”
Hornacek is familiar with steal-savvy point guards. He played alongside the NBA’s all-time steals leader John Stockton in Utah.
“He knew how the plays were going. He had great positioning,” Hornacek said.
“But Eric gets them in a different way. He gets it with strength. He takes the ball out of guys’ hands. He’s very quick, so when they try to run a hand-off around him, he’s always got his hand on the ball. Those are different steals. Those are steals that really put pressure on a team because they have to always be alert of where he’s at.”
Hornacek has preached defense first and foremost since taking over. He’s preached being aggressive, but he cautions about being overly aggressive.
“We got to be a little careful,” Hornacek said. “We want them to be aggressive, but not get out of position when they go for these steals.”
It’s a lesson that will be emphasized once again when the Suns play their second preseason game, at Portland on Wednesday.