Hornacek's steady hand raises Suns' confidence, level of play

First-year head coach thrives by embracing the simple concept of letting players play.

The Suns are 22-9 in games in which both starting guards Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe have been in the lineup at the same time.

Tom Szczerbowski / USA TODAY Sports

PHOENIX -- During the preamble to this NBA season, the number aggressively pasted on the Suns in several national forecasts was 29.

Twenty-nine didn't represent the number of victories they were expected to generate while igniting their future with what most considered little more than a couple of dry sticks. The notion of 29 victories seemed slightly optimistic.

Seriously, after trading away a chunk of what passed as veteran talent, should anyone have expected Phoenix to gather four more wins than it did last season?

And weren't we all settling into the rallying cry of "NBA Lottery . . . you can play if you don't win?"

So, as we rewind to late October, let's check with the soothsayers at Yahoo, ESPN, Bleacher Report and Sports Blog Nation who all registered the Suns as a pitiful 29th in their preseason power rankings.

Fast forward to now, and we find the Suns sitting on the eighth seed in the Western Conference with only five regular-season games remaining.

Don't bother holding up your hand to insist you saw this coming.

At 46-31 heading into Wednesday's game at New Orleans, the 50-win plateau is within reach. To punch that playoff ticket, 50 may be required.

No matter what occurs over the next eight days, however, finding the Suns in this predicament seems remarkable.

How did this sneak attack on the league happen?

Well, there have been several variables. But the most important has been the easygoing but deeply competitive first-year coach Jeff Hornacek.

Let's go to some testimony.

"He's doing a terrific job," Suns general manager Ryan McDonough, one of the people responsible for hiring Hornacek, said. "I hope he wins Coach of the Year because he absolutely deserves it."

Before pondering how Hornacek has accomplished this uprising, it should be noterd that the Suns have been obliged to play 46 games without Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe in the starting lineup at the same time. That leaves 31 games when they have had the services of their 1-2 punch; in those games, the Suns are 22-9.

Even when they're not, Phoenix is a quite respectable 24-22 competing in (by far) the NBA's roughest conference.

The players have earned considerable merit for hiking their performance levels. But beyond the easy variable of increased playing time translating to fatter numbers, how has an entire team of overachievers coalesced into a playoff contender?  

"We told 'em everybody has a clean slate," Hornacek said when asked about his recipe for extracting more from what the critics presume was less. "As coaches, we tell these guys sometimes you have to play on your instincts."

What's our longer-range translation? Hornacek has thrived by embracing the simple concept of letting players play. That may be easy to say, but really tricky for some coaches to allow.

For a more specific interpretation of this approach, we sought input from veteran Suns forward Channing Frye, a guy who's experienced the nuances of quite a few NBA coaches.

"What makes Jeff awesome," Frye said, "is he'll play anybody who's ready to play and play people who are going to give us the best chance to win at that time and it's nothing personal.

"Guys respect that, and everyone's ready to play."

For McDonough, Hornacek's catalog of elite coaching variables can be distilled into one concept.

"I think consistency's the main thing," the GM said. "He comes in every day, he puts in the work, watches a lot of film, knows the opposition inside and out. He also watches a lot of film of our guys and sees what they need to improve on, what they can do better."

Assisted by a coaching staff that sweats the details of physical and mental player development, Hornacek has presided over the surge of Gerald Green.

Although Green had a few nice moments working for the New Jersey Nets two seasons back, his ascension to deadly weapon has put the league on notice.

The Morris twins, widely considered to be on the cusp of buster status, have become a big tandem issue for teams to deal with. Dragic, adjusting to life with and without Bledsoe, has played at an All-Star level. Bledsoe's expected rise toward stardom has followed course.

After not being allowed to work up an in-game sweat for the Indiana Pacers last season, center Miles Plumlee has given the Suns 8 points and 8 rebounds per game in minutes limited by situations.

Despite what previously occurred in their careers, they all typically play with elevated confidence. And they've usually avoided carrying the weight of a loss or victory into the next game.

"We are a reflection of Jeff and his attitude toward the game," Frye said after the Suns knocked off the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. "And it's his belief in us. You look at every guy who gets in the game -- they're ready, they know their roles.

"I'll even use my personal case. I haven't been shooting necessarily well the past couple games, but you know I understand that tonight they (the Thunder) only played one big, tonight wasn't going to be my night unless I was hot, and I understand that. I know that. I'm ready to be ready whenever Jeff calls my name. At the same time, he's going to play the guys who are going to do the best for us. Guys respect that."

In addition to tweaking their focus and commitment to team-first concepts, Hornacek has figured out how to blend two ball-dominant point guards. When Bledsoe was gone for a couple of months, he was required to use whatever measures were required to keep the offense flowing.

Losing a player of Bledsoe's caliber didn't provoke an adjustment in philosophy. The Suns continued to push the tempo, and -- despite some bad defensive performances -- continued working to improve their defensive awareness.

"He and his staff have done a great job of maximizing that ability and trying to minimize any weaknesses we have," McDonough said. "More than anything, it's instilling confidence in these guys and giving them the belief that they can play with anybody."

According to basketball-reference.com, which rates teams based on schedule and point differential, the Suns are 10th in the NBA.

We can't even see 29 from there.

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