The Suns are currently riding a season-high-tying three-game winning streak as they face the visiting Raptors on Wednesday. With four days between games, the Suns had a nice little respite before resuming the final 22 contests of the regular season. Check out what was uncovered after practice Tuesday.
In order to catch a flight to Boston to visit his daughter, Suns center Jermaine O’Neal left practice early Tuesday. His 13-year-old daughter, Asjia, will undergo surgery to repair a leaky heart valve Wednesday.
Although he spoke to the front office about an estimated date of return to the team, the club is giving him as much time as he needs.
“Family is the most important thing,” Suns Head Coach Lindsey Hunter said. “It puts everything in perspective when you see what his daughter is going through. That’s the first priority and our prayers are with him.”
The Suns center’s leave comes on the heels of a recent hot stretch on the court. After taking some time away from the team earlier this season because of his aunt’s death, O’Neal is currently displaying the kind of play that made him a six-time All-Star during his prime.
“He’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do,” Hunter said. “He’s help mentor the young guys, as well as produced on the floor. If you can get a veteran like that, it makes our job a little easier and makes his career feel a little more fulfilling.”
When O’Neal totaled at least 17 points and 12 rebounds against the Warriors on February 20, it had been three years to the day since he had posted such a performance. But he wasn’t finished there.
A week later, he outdid himself. Against the Spurs last Wednesday, he racked up a season-high 22 points and a season-high-tying 13 rebounds in the Suns’ overtime win.
It was his first 20-10 outing since he was playing for Miami on February 6, 2010.
Hunter cites the way O’Neal treated his body during the summer as the reason for his resurgence this season. He believes that the 34-year-old big man still has much more basketball in his legs.
“He’s had some monster games against some pretty good teams,’ Hunter noted. “For him to show that at this stage is unbelievable, and it’s a tribute to how hard he worked in the summer. He’s taking care of his body, has got his knees together and it’s showing.”
After a tough loss to visiting Boston on February 22, the Suns’ record has made an abrupt turnaround, going 3-1 since that night. While winning three-straight games may seem like it would be attributed to a sudden alteration, Coach Hunter believes that the improvement has been more gradual.
Since that game, Hunter has practiced his team vigorously and worked on certain principles until the players have completely comprehended them. Practice typically begins with the team going over rotations and strategy of how to keep opponents out of the paint.
Suns point guard Goran Dragic estimates that about 60 percent of practice is dedicated to defense.
“Our defense is better, especially in the rotations,” Dragic stated. “If you play good defense, you don’t put pressure on the offense.
“Even if you miss, you’re confident that you can defend. Maybe because of that we finished some games like we did in the last three.”
If Phoenix defeats Toronto on Wednesday, it will mark the longest winning streak of the season.
“All of (the practices) have been building up to now,” Hunter said. “I think it was a natural progression to get it to a certain point where they understand. I see glimpses of us being a pretty good defensive team.”
After registering just one double-digit scoring performance all season, Suns swingman Wes Johnson has reeled off two in the last three games.
“Everybody knows that he’s a great basketball player,” Dragic said of his teammate. “He’s a great shooter, athletic, long and quick. Even against San Antonio, he did a great job of defending Tony Parker.”
Although Johnson has drilled 7-of-13 of his last three-point shots, Hunter has been won over by other parts of his game.
“He’s been spectacular,” the Suns head coach said. “I’m more impressed with him on the defensive end than anything because I had no idea that he could defend the way he is defending for us. He’s guarded 1s, 2s, 3s and some 4s, and that’s been a pleasant surprise for us to see him play that way.”