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Suns Strokes: Atlanta Hawks take control late, top Phoenix
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Suns Strokes: Atlanta Hawks take control late, top Phoenix

The Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks are in a similar place in the NBA landscape. Both are in strong TV markets (Atlanta 8th-largest and Phoenix 12th), but often get looked past for other cities.

The beaches and glamour of Miami, along with the huge skyscrapers in New York and Chicago, overshadow the Hawks. Phoenix deals with the glitz of Los Angeles, plus the steadiness of teams across Texas.

One organization has accepted where it is, while the other strives to be something different.

Was the Suns’ 96-87 loss to the Hawks on Friday night at US Airways Center a glimpse of what the Purple and Orange could have developed if they had chose that direction?

In a way, the 2013-2014 season for the Suns and Hawks were parallel moments on opposite sides of the country. Both teams had first year coaches in Jeff Hornacek and Mike Budenholzer, and both leaders guided their teams to somewhat surprising seasons. Atlanta snuck into the playoffs in the Eastern Conference with a 38-44 record, and Phoenix just missed out in the stronger Western Conference at 48-34.

Each team dealt with significant injuries to arguably their best player — when Al Horford was in the lineup, the Hawks went 16-13, and the Suns were a stellar 28-15 with Eric Bledsoe on the court.

Once the past offseason arrived, each organization appeared to pick a different course.

The Hawks kept their personnel moves pretty simple. Lou Williams was the only departed Hawk who saw more than 1,000 minutes last year. The team signed Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha to add defense plus length to the wing position. This led to most of the Hawks players returning to roles similar to what they served last year.

Second-year point guard Dennis Schroder has seen increased playing time, forward Mike Scott earned more consistent minutes and Al Horford returned to stabilize the frontcourt.

Before Friday’s game, Budenholzer discussed how much this meant for Atlanta:

“I think we’ve been able to get a group of players that are high character, very, very unselfish with high basketball IQ’s,” he said. “That collection of players has been able to do a lot of good things together, and collectively we can keep getting better and move forward.

“Continuity is really important — bringing back 11 or 12 guys from last year’s team and adding Thabo and Kent. You know when a group gets together and develops a deeper understanding of everything that it is what we want to do, offensively and defensively, continuity is invaluable.”

The goal of Atlanta’s offseason was the complete opposite of the that of the Suns, despite the success Phoenix showed. The Suns went star chasing, with their eyes set on stars like LeBron James or even Carmelo Anthony.

Phoenix’s grand plans failed, but the roster was shuffled significantly with some smaller moves. The team brought in Isaiah Thomas and let go of Channing Frye, which ruined any chance at the continuity Budenholzer talked about above. By letting Frye go, the Suns lost the identity they built after one season and had to adjust.

Goran Dragic, Markieff Morris, Alex Len, Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee all had their roles significantly changed. Some players handled this well and others didn’t. The offseason of chasing ended up leading to more roster maneuvering during the season, which lands us where they are today.

Did the Suns have a group of players with the ability to develop into a greater sum with better health, more time together and younger players taking on bigger roles (such as Len and Archie Goodwin following the same path as Schroder)?

The Atlanta Hawks accomplished just that.

It’s too bad we’ll never know the answer for the Phoenix Suns.

THE GOOD

The Suns played a solid basketball game for 33 minutes. With three minutes left in the third quarter, Phoenix led the best team in the Eastern Conference 71-60.

They jumped out to the 11-point lead on the back of their three-point shooting and three-point defense. At this point the Suns had knocked down 10-of-19 shots from behind the arc, including three each from Marcus Morris and Eric Bledsoe.

Atlanta was 2-for-8 from long range at that point, with not even a single attempt from sniper Kyle Korver.

THE BAD

The final 15 minutes didn’t go nearly as well. The Hawks outscored Phoenix 36-16 to clinch the victory. The deep ball that catapulted the Suns to the lead started going the other direction: Atlanta connected on 6-of-10, with the Suns missing all seven of their attempts.

Bledsoe’s turnover issues also reappeared as he compiled four of his seven giveaways during this stretch, and the team had eight as a whole.

“I thought it was pretty good until we got tired,” said head coach Jeff Hornacek in regard to the giveaways. “When you get tired, you get lazy on some things, and mentally you don’t focus and know where guys are. And that is how you end up with the turnovers. They were active; they were coming after it and getting up on pick rolls. That is when you have to be mentally sharp and tough and move it. We didn’t have the energy in the fourth quarter to deal with them.”

Bledsoe has averaged 5.8 turnovers over his last six games.

STAT OF THE GAME

Markieff Morris tallied his 17th 20th-point game of the season with a team-high 22 points on 9-of-18 shooting. Morris had a career-high 18 20-point games in 13-14.

HE SAID IT

“It was just one of those to where I don’t let nobody punk me. If you dunk, it was a good play. But standing over me, I can’t stand for that.” – Suns guard Archie Goodwin on his technical foul after Dennis Schroder’s dunk early in the 4th quarter, for which the Atlanta guard also earned a technical

NOTED

– Suns center Alex Len suffered a sprained right ankle with 6:58 remaining in the fourth quarter. There was no update on his status after the game outside of it being a sprain.

UP NEXT

The Suns will try to not overlook the dreadful New York Knicks on Sunday night in third matchup of a four-game homestand. Suns Warm Up starts at 5:30 p.m., with tipoff coming at 6:00 p.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7. Phoenix is then off until Thursday, when it will take on the New Orleans Pelicans, who lead the Suns by three full games for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.