Improved bench play has Suns rising

PHOENIX – Friday night provided a strong dose of evidence that a couple of those NBA trade-deadline reports supplied by national media sharpies were accurate.

Josh Smith really did help the Phoenix Suns finish the season on a roll that may prevent them from landing an extremely early pick in the 2013 draft.

By the way, Smith remains employed by the Atlanta Hawks, who lost 92-87 at US Airways Center to became the Suns’ third conquest in as many games.

Smith, rumored to have been the apple of the Suns’ transaction eye, was credited with missing 9 of 11 shots from the field (including all 5 from 3-point range) and committing 5 turnovers. For the record, he’s usually quite a bit better than that, but nowhere near good enough for what the Suns – who weren’t interested in hiring him – probably would have had to pony up to keep him almost four months after siphoning off some important assets.

It also should be noted that Smith’s contributions to the Suns’ victory were overshadowed by those from the Phoenix bench. With point guard Goran Dragic missing the last 15-plus minutes after injuring his lower back on a nasty fall, five Suns subs played every second of the fourth quarter.

Rookie Kendall Marshall, old-timer Jermaine O’Neal and Wes Johnson joined the Morris twins in enabling Phoenix to hold on and finish its 21st victory in 60 games.

“We’re finding guys that want to play the right way and just go out and compete,” interim head coach Lindsey Hunter said, “and that’s what we’ve been looking for from the beginning.”

A lot of playing the right way was supplied by Johnson, who – since spending most of the season spectating – has erupted for 37 points across these last three games.

After scoring a deuce in the opening half, Johnson (15 points on 6-of-9 shooting overall) re-entered the game for P.J. Tucker at 8:34 of the third quarter. And when Jared Dudley’s spat with teammate Luis Scola sent J.D. to the pine 26 seconds later, Marcus Morris (16 points on 5-of-8 shooting) came on.

Hunter, who appeared to co-star in an animated discussion with J.D. during an ensuing time out, said the Dudley-Scola event was “nothing we haven’t seen before.”

But an offense that was pretty efficient (the Suns had shot 39 percent from the field in their previous three home games) registered as a rare sight.

Working against a marginally effective Hawks matchup zone, Johnson quickly bagged a couple of 3-pointers. Although he made some early mistakes chasing Atlanta sharpshooter Kyle Korver around a gauntlet of down and cross screens out of “Horns” and box sets, Johnson made a couple of key stops when it mattered in the fourth quarter.

“It’s very difficult,” Johnson said of chasing Korver, “because he’s also good at passing ball after coming off those screens.”

But Johnson had a counter.

“It’s just my length, my quickness and my speed,” he said.

Johnson was quick and fast enough on the lock-and-trail tactic that his Suns teammates weren’t required to step in, help on Korver and leave an Atlanta post player available at the rim.

Johnson’s work wasn’t lost on Hunter.

“I always watch the things that we do defensively, and I think Korver is a great catch-and-shooter off of pin-downs, off of zippers, off of flares, so you can never relax,” Hunter said. “Every time Wes relaxed, he burned us, and I kept telling him to play the entire possession out. You cannot relax on him.

“At the end, I think he really got into him and chased him off any shots that he had.”

Johnson’s just thankful to be on the floor contributing.

“My game’s progressing,” he said. “I have some momentum and I feel a lot more confident. I’m just going out there, playing hard and having fun.”

The final result – and three-game winning streak – may seem fairly jolly for the Suns and their fans, but Friday’s game was a little nasty.

The second-half skirmishes included a hard foul by Hawks guard Devin Harris on Dragic, a crusty interlude co-starring Ivan Johnson and Suns forward Markieff Morris, a Jeff Teague flagrant foul against Marcus Morris, the Dudley-Scola debate and some macho posturing by O’Neal aimed at, well, pretty much the entire Atlanta team.

“At times, things happen like that,” Hunter said. “It gets chippy. Our guys didn’t back down and as a team, you have to protect one another out there on the court, and I think that we did that.

“We can’t let others provoke us to stop playing our game. We’re basketball players and we have to be that first.”

Dragic, the best player the Suns have had this season, suffered a similar injury earlier this season.

“I think the first one was even worse than this one,” he said. “This one hurts more. It’s right on a bone. We have four days off without a game, so I will have to do treatment to see if I will go.”