Last night a friend asked me why NBA teams play exhibition games when they’ve just had an entire week of training camp to practice and learn plays. I explained to her that coaches have a lot of questions that training camp just can’t answer and it isn’t until you go up against a true opponent that those questions can begin to be answered. Talking to some of the younger players before tonight’s preseason game against the Atlanta Hawks, it became apparent that they’re seeking a few answers themselves in the eight games leading up to the Season Opener.

“I think a lot of the guys who have been here longer are looking to see how well they understand this new system and show how much they’ve improved defensively,” rookie Goran Dragic said. “For me, I want to show that I’m going to go out there and play hard. I know if I do that, good things are going to come.”

Fellow rookie teammate Robin Lopez said he viewed the preseason as a chance to to finally go out and show what he can do against an opposition outside of the Suns organization.

“We’ve been playing against one another so long I think it’s going to be nice going out there and having the chance to beat up on somebody else,” the center out of Stanford said. ”I just want to play hard tonight and do whatever I can to help my team get a win.”

Lopez did play hard, albeit in a 100-96 loss. And while some might feel the pros don’t care about winning and losing in the preseason, a message written on the large dry erase board in the Suns locker room indicates that isn’t entirely the case. Amidst the game plans and opposing lineup information it read: “Attitude – it starts tonight.” A message Suns Head Coach Terry Porter reiterated when meeting with the media prior to the game.

“I want to see some carry over for all the hard work these guys put in during camp,” Porter said. “I’m sure they’ve grown tired of beating up on each other and I want to see how they respond against a new opponent.”

While the Suns may have come up short in Wednesday’s loss, Porter said following the affair he likes what he’s seen from his team so far.

“I thought we came out with good energy and I thought early on we showed some good signs and as the game went on we didn’t sustain it,” Porter said. “Overall for the first game, I was pretty pleased. You hate to lose, but we got some guys who got some quality minutes and had a chance to show us some good things.

With Leandro Barbosa home in Brazil attending to his ill mother and Amar’e Stoudemire still waiting for a torn iris to heal, Porter says there will be plenty of opportunities to step up during the 2008 preseason for the Suns.“It offers guys another opportunity,” Porter said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Leandro and we still like to think we’ll have Amar’e back towards the end of the preseason. In the meantime, we are looking for guys like Alando Tucker to play well.”

Tucker did just that for the Suns, finishing the night with 14 points and two rebounds. In fact, how the young forward out of Wisconsin would perform tonight was one of the five key questions I myself had heading into the evening affair. Driving into the US Airways Center for tonight’s game, in fact, I remembered somebody else who benefits greatly from the preseason – Suns.com, as well as, several members of the media. It gives us an opportunity to brush up on our typing skills and get those creative juices flowing. Tonight I decided to do just that by jotting down five key questions heading into the Suns-Hawks game and seeing how they played out.

 

HOW WOULD ALANDO TUCKER PLAY?

When you’re sharing a practice court with Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Shaquille O’Neal, I don’t think a young guy can help but defer to his teammates a little too often. That’s why I was interested in seeing how Tucker would perform when on the court with his fellow reserves. Over the summer and throughout training camp, the rookies on this team grew really close toTucker and I had a feeling he would be the one deferred to a lot when sharing the court with them.

I was really interested in seeing how Tucker would respond to becoming the guy expected to take jumpers when the shot clock was winding down and as mentioned, he certainly stepped up to the task. Just like in practice, Tucker appeared to be everywhere on the court and when he wasn’t able to knock down the shot, he was right there contending for and sometimes even coming up with the rebound.

Since the beginning of last season I’ve probably spent more time talking with Tucker than anybody else on the team. We’ve talked about everything from life as a rookie to the Dark Knight movie we were both big fans of. He’s a guy who has put in a ton of work over the summer and I know everybody in this organization is really pulling for him to have a great year. With so much depth on this year’s Suns team, I have no idea what kind of minutes he’ll see during the 2008-09 campaign. I do know, however, that he’ll make the most of whatever time he receives and I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes the court with some of his rookie for the Rookie-Sophomore Game set to take place later this year in Phoenix.

 

WOULD A SOLID TRAINING CAMP CARRY OVER FOR SHAQUILLE O’NEAL?

No player was more of a pleasant surprise in Tucson than veteran center Shaquille O’Neal. The Diesel reported to training camp in very good shape and was solid from the first day on. In Wednesday

night’s loss, the Big Cactus scored 21 points and pulled down 10 rebounds. Best of all, he managed that contribution in under 24 minutes of play. Can you imagine getting that kind of production
from a guy on a team with a two-time MVP and one of the league’s brightest young superstars?

The numbers also bode well for Stoudemire, as well. O’Neal put up the double-double despite the fact teams didn’t have to second guess the consequences of double teaming him. I’m not sure which poison
opponents will pick between Shaq and Stoudemire this upcoming season, but it’s good to see that both will be completely ready for whatever comes their way.

 

COULD GORAN DRAGIC LIVE UP TO MY HYPE?

I don’t think anybody has been more on the Dragic bandwagon than I have since the team officially signed the guard in late September. He has a world of talent at a very young age and is incredibly fun to watch. In fact, the only thing that concerned me about the guard’s game was the latter of those two attributes. Sometimes flashy, entertaining players make tend to make a lot of turnovers which can drive a coach crazy. I thought it might take Dragic time to adjust to the speed of the NBA game, but after tonight I’m confident it won’t be long until it becomes the other way around. Dragic played smart basketball and definitely appears ready to step right in and make an impact on this ballclub.

Physically, there are zero questions surrounding Dragic. When talking to Steve Nash during Training Camp, the two-time MVP commented on what a difficult defender he is in practice because of his length and athleticism.

“He’s a talented kid and he’s doing great,” Nash said. “He’s really long for a point guard and has a lot of skills defensively. Once he gets more experience in this league, I think he’s going to flourish.”

Dragic’s contribution of five points and three assists didn’t exactly jump off the stat sheet tonight, but watching him play, you really get a sense of just how much he can bring to the table. The Slovenian
also pitched in a block and an assist, and his speed and ball handling ability really helped to break down the defense and create opportunities for his teammates.

I really don’t think it’s going to be long before Dragic is recognized as the 2008 draft selection teams feel they let slip away. 

 

WOULD THE BIGGEST CHANGES FOR THIS TEAM BE NOTICED ON THE OFFENSIVE END OR THE DEFENSIVE END OF THE COURT?

No big shocker that it would be the latter proving to be the answer tonight. I didn’t think the Suns were going to lose much on offense going from last season into this one, and while they weren’t playing
the defending champion Boston Celtics (although ironically a team that forced them to a Game Seven), I was still impressed with the numbers they put up on that end of the floor. The team racked up 96 points on the night and this was without their biggest offensive weapon in Stoudemire and just three points in limited time from Steve Nash.

On defense, however, the ballclub had a much different feel to it. Yes, they gave up 100 points, but impressive blocked shots by players including rookie Robin Lopez and newcomer Louis Amundson, helped
set a mood that teams would no longer dominate in the paint as they have in seasons past. I don’t usually buy into the whole “at least he made him work for it” philosophy. If a team scores 100 points, they
score 100 points whether you make them work hard for it or not. But if teams have to second guess taking the ball inside and have to rely on taking jumpers, things are going to work out for the Suns more times than not.

 

COULD I SCORE SOME COLD STONE CREAMERY AT HALFTIME?

Last but certainly not least were the nuances that come with working a Phoenix Suns game. Take for example the free Cold Stone Creamery handed out downstairs in the Al McCoy Media Center downstairs during halftime. A tradition at Suns games during the regular season, I just couldn’t remember whether or not this delicious treat was also distributed during the preseason. To my delight it was, and the
desert was just as good as I remembered it.

Another key off the court question which was answered tonight was which songs or sound effects would be played for the new acquisitions whenever they scored a basket. Past favorites have included Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones” for James Jones and the still beloved Roadrunner sound effect for Leandro Barbosa. My favorite tonight was the playing of Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie” for Louis Amundson who pitched in 12 points.

Next up for the Suns is a contest tomorrow night in Utah where Coach Porter says he is interested in seeing how his young players respond to playing on the road. It will be just another question among many answered for the Suns during this 2008 preseason.