Suns rising in the West as their rivals stumble

Inspired play by Goran Dragic and the insertion of Alex Len into the starting lineup have been two substantial contributing factors in the Suns' recent hot streak. 

Jim Mone/AP

While the Suns continue avoiding defeat in 2015, the pluck of last season seems to be returning.

Wednesday’s better-late-than-never triumph over the Timberwolves in Minnesota — on the second night of back-to-back work shifts — was the Suns’ 10th win in their last 12 games.

This surge lifts Phoenix’s season record to 22-16 and leaves the Suns a few percentage points behind the San Antonio Spurs (Friday’s road date) in the battle for seventh place in the Western Conference.

The timing of this run is particularly nice, because it has arrived while those they aim to either overtake or hold off are slipping.

We’ll start with the Spurs, who’ve been competing without 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and superstar point guard Tony Parker (both have missed 14 of 36 games).

While waiting for Leonard and Parker to heal, the Spurs have dropped six of their last 10 games.

It should be noted that the sixth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers have rallied to win 4 of 5 to reach 6-4 over their last 10, while Josh Smith and the fifth-seeded Houston are 5-5 in this stretch.

Looking out below the Suns we find the ninth-place New Orleans Pelicans, who also have lost 6 of their last 10, followed by the Oklahoma City Thunder (5-5).

Although OKC — thanks to a 44-point salvo from Kevin Durant on his first game back after injuring an ankle — knocked off Phoenix in overtime on New Year’s Eve, it’s only 1-2 since.

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The Thunder’s struggles include Wednesday’s 21-point loss in Sacramento, which ended the Kings’ 12-game losing streak.

Russell Westbrook, who has taken over the league lead in technical fouls (9 in only 22 games) from Suns forward Markieff Morris and Clipper Blake Griffin, missed 16 of 19 shots from the field.

Newcomer Dion Waiters was a chilly 1 for 9 in his first game for OKC.

The Suns’ rollercoaster December took fans from the depths of despair back to the platform of optimism.

It also provided a stage for Goran Dragic to rise toward a level of play similar to what he reached last season.

In a month that co-starred a six-game losing streak followed by a six-game winning streak, The Dragon hit opponents for 20 points and 5 assists per game.

Dragic made 53.7 percent of his shots from the field during the month, including 40.6 percent from behind the 3-point arc. For the season, the lefty guard is averaging 16.9 points on 50.7 percent shooting (35.9 percent from 3).

He knocked in 25 points in Minnesota on Wednesday, keeping the Suns close until Gerald Green rocked the T-wolves to start the fourth quarter.

Phoenix’s rise just happens to line up side by side with Alex Len’s promotion to the starting lineup.

With Len in the first five, the Suns are 10-3. The second-year center from Maryland (via Ukraine) has blocked 36 shots in those 13, while never playing more than 27:48 in any of them.

Len has rejected three or more shots seven times in that stretch, including five or more in three of the last four games. Based on a formula, he’s now third among NBA players in block percentage, trailing only Utah’s Rudy Gobert and Anthony Davis of New Orleans.

In addition to the actual blocks, the 7-foot-1 Len has been effective at altering shots near the rim. The Suns still are only 18th  in field-goal percentage defense at 45.4, but they limited six opponents to less than that since making the switch at center.

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The next home game for the Suns — whose four-game road trip ends Sunday in Memphis — is next Tuesday’s date with the newsy Cleveland Cavaliers.

It will be the only local stop for LeBron James and his new playmates . . . who are expected to take on the Suns without LeBron.

According to a Wednesday night report, the target game for James to return from two weeks off for rehabilitation of strains to his left knee and lower back is next Thursday’s matchup with the Lakers in L.A.

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