PHOENIX — For the Suns, maintenance of the following perspective will define how this particular season continues to unfold:
"The emphasis from the coaches is that you have to play like nobody expects you to win."
That testimony was provided by coach Jeff Hornacek after his team took down another team not exactly obliged to drag around the weight of expectation.
The Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night made their annual visit to Phoenix and left U.S. Airways Center with 115-101 loss administered by a Suns team that entered this season with a similar forecast: cloudy with a high probability of unavoidable tanking.
But the Suns ended the evening at 18-11 and sitting on the sixth seed in the crusty Western Conference, while the Sixers (after an unexpectedly strong start) continued rolling toward the NBA Draft lottery at 8-21.
So, following Friday night’s pasting by the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, the Suns were required to embrace the role of the hunted.
"We can’t think we can just show up and win," Hornacek said. "We’ve tried that a couple of times â¦ it didn’t work out too well."
Despite giving the Sixers enough respect to put up 60 points in the first half, the Suns began the second half with a one-point lead.
In one of the sloppiest games we’ve seen thus far (the Suns supplied 19 of the game’s 39 turnovers), the home team had enough ingredients to cook up its ninth victory in 11 games.
AN INSIDE JOB
After their recent salvo of blazing 3-point shooting, the Suns connected on just 27.3 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc.
Fortunately, they were able to take advantage of two really nice low-post matchups.
The first was bouncy and agile center Mason Plumlee working against the plodding defensive tactics of the 76ers’ Spencer Hawes.
Demonstrating slick footwork and counter maneuvers on the block (in addition to banging in a few dunks), Plumlee scored a career-high 22 points on 10-of-14 shooting. He also took down 13 rebounds, erased three Philly shots and took seven stitches in the chin during the fourth quarter.
Plumlee had a dozen points in the opening quarter, trotting out jump hooks with either hand.
"I think coach likes to go to me in the beginning of the game to try and get me going," Plumlee said. "It gives me confidence and makes me feel good."
ANOTHER INSIDE JOB
At 6-foot-11, Suns four man Channing Frye offered a three-inch height advantage over Thaddeus Young.
Frye contributed just eight points to this triumph, but he had six in the third quarter while helping push the Phoenix advantage into double digits.
The Suns players didn’t seize upon this discrepancy until they were reminded at intermission.
"Our guys are a little slow to recognize mismatches when we have one down there," Hornacek said, "and it’s hard to sit there and direct traffic all the time. We talked about it again and halftime, and so they had to just get their more quickly and throw it in.
"Guys are worried about the weak-side help on the lob pass, but I said, ‘That’s all right, just throw it up there anyway.’ They (Frye’s teammates) did a much better job in the second half of getting the ball in there."
For the record, Young wasn’t exactly helpless. He used his superior quickness and agility to evade bigger Phoenix defenders on the other end for 30 points, making 10 of 18 shots from the field.
ANOTHER INTERESTING POINT
That’s a reference to 76ers rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who stuffed the stat sheet with 27 points, 6 dimes, 6 rebounds, 4 steals and 5 turnovers.
The Suns’ talent-evaluation team reportedly was quite keen on MCW before the draft, but selected center Alex Len with the fifth overall pick.
Philly nabbed Carter-Williams at pick No. 11, and shipped the young-and-rising Jrue Holiday to New Orleans for the draft rights to Nerlens Noel, who — like Len — is spending his learning curve sitting on the bench while recovering from injury.
The Suns went on to trade for Eric Bledsoe and are pairing him with Goran Dragic in an all-point-guard starting backcourt.
Even though his efficiency wasn’t great Saturday night, MCW ranked fifth among point guards in that category; Bledsoe is seventh and Dragic 12th.
Bledsoe and Dragic began their careers as stunt doubles for Chris Paul and Steve Nash, respectively. Carter-Williams’ numbers are abetted by his status as the dominant ball-handler on a bad team.
Although the Suns are looking pretty swell in their playoff-contending predicament, it’ll be interesting to see who the Sixers land from the 2014 draft bounty and where that player can help MCW take them.
Meanwhile, the Suns will wait for Len (although Plumlee looks like a sensational option moving forward) and decide if the Dragic-Bledsoe partnership should be part of the next great Phoenix team.
SLASH BROTHERS DID WORK
Even though the Suns provided some low-post damage, Dragic (21 and Bledsoe (20) combined for 41 points while making 14-of-27 shots from the field. They also teamed up to provide nine assists, seven rebounds, five steals and seven turnovers.
With those two pushing the pace (but still not to the level Hornacek prefers), Phoenix added 31 fast-break points to its league-leading total.
ABOUT THAT MCW EFFICIENCY
Playing without perimeter buddy Evan Turner (he was listed as out due to "soreness"), Carter-Williams unloaded 28 shots to generate his 27 points.
"I think we got good looks," the Rookie of the Year candidate said, "they just didn’t fall."
But his looks weren’t as pristine in the second half, mainly because Hornacek assigned P.J. Tucker to guard the former Syracuse star.
"We can’t have P.J. guard everybody," Hornacek said. "We could clone P.J. and have three or four of those guys on the floor in the fourth and we’ll be all right. But we can’t do that."