Smith, Suns ready to take show on road

Suns guard Ish Smith goes up for a dunk against the Bucks during a 116-100 victory Saturday night.

PHOENIX — We still won’t call him "Ishmael," even when he’s facing a marine-mammal-sized opportunity.

That opportunity surfaced with rising Sun Eric Bledsoe carrying a knee sprain that will keep him in dry dock at least another week. So the presence of Ish Smith could be a lot more vital to the team’s playoff-seeking efforts during this otherwise unsavory interlude.

OK, he hasn’t moved into Bledsoe’s starting role in Phoenix’s double-point-guard alignment, but coach Jeff Hornacek really enjoys having speedy ball-handlers on the floor.

"We need the floor spaced," Hornacek said Saturday before the Suns’ second game since Bledsoe was injured Monday in Los Angeles. "We still have Archie (Goodwin) and Ish to break people down, get to the basket or dish."

Pairing any break-down guard with Goran Dragic certainly seems a good way to generate open shots for the shooting section of the Suns’ floor-spacing crew.

But with the struggling Milwaukee Bucks checking in Saturday night at US Airways Center, Smith’s duties during a 116-100 triumph were limited to serving as R&R for Dragic.

"We just want him to run the team," Hornacek said after Smith provided eight points (he missed 6-of-10 shots) and eight assists in slightly less than 20 minutes against one of the six NBA teams to have previously employed him. "He did a great job of that."

With the Suns up 28-26 after the opening quarter, Smith came on and provided what translated to (dangerous metrics alert) a plus-13 rating during his 7:40 on the floor.

At 9:33 of that game-defining second quarter, a Suns flurry began with Smith finding Gerald Green (the starter replacing Bledsoe) for a long two-pointer. On the ensuing possession, his committed ball-hawking forced a traveling violation on Bucks guard Gary Neal.

"When you’re that size," Hornacek said of the 6-foot-1 Smith, "you have to be a pest defensively. He’s good at that."

He’s not great at jump shooting, but nailed a 20-foot jumper moments later. Smith then found Channing Frye for a 3-pointer, converted a runner in the lane and served up an assist on a Marcus Morris 3.

When that run was downshifted at the 6:48 mark, the Suns had increased their lead from seven to 16 points.

"It’s a little different mentality," Smith said of stepping forward from point guard No. 3 to getting more minutes. "Before, it was like, ‘Ish, go get ’em’ and I was like ‘Oh, shucks’ like I was sitting on my hands.

"Now, it’s knowing that you’re going to go out there. I’m going to need help from Eric, talking to him and my teammates, constantly building confidence and giving me confidence to go and push and play."

In the fourth, Smith came back on with the Suns up 11 and helped increase the lead to 20 with 3:11 remaining.

For those rooting for the (relatively) little guy, the Ish list included intercepting a Milwaukee outlet pass and punching home a two-handed dunk.

Smith’s quickness and shifty handle created dribble penetration through the Bucks’ rare (for the NBA) and prolonged attempts at playing a match-up zone defense.

"We need him to go out there and just control the offense," Hornacek said. "We don’t necessarily need him to score. If it’s there’s, sure, but penetrate in there and dish it out. Be that creator that we need."

With a five-game roadie around the corner, Smith’s potential to be an impactful sub could make Dragic’s workload sans Bledsoe seem a lot more manageable.

"We’re going to need our bench guys to give these guys a rest," Hornacek said.

Green, transitioning back to starter from bench guy, was electrifying against Milwaukee. In addition to putting his 6-8 frame between Bucks guard Brandon Knight and the basket (he wasn’t very successful), Green scored a season-high 24 points, making 9-of-14 shots from the field.

Four of those makes arrived via Green’s intercept-a-pass-and-dunk-magnificently technique. Four more were bagged from behind the 3-point line.

Frye finished with 22 points (7 of 12 overall, 6 of 9 from 3) and seven rebounds, Markieff Morris added 14 points off the bench, while Dragic had a modest 15 … and the entire fourth quarter off.

The credit for that well-deserved break goes to the temporary second-unit point guard.

"It’s a different mentality, but I can get better," Smith said. "I still wasn’t happy with my performance. Keep pushing and hopefully get better. We have a tough road trip coming up."