Suns’ confidence growing along with win streak
PHOENIX — The Suns are sprouting facial hair, on purpose, as a symbol of playoff-chasing solidarity.
But far more impressive demonstrations of growth continue to occur when the league’s most confounding team shows up for work.
On Friday, this collection of NBA Most Improved Player candidates poleaxed the New York Knicks 112-88 for their 44th victory in 73 games.
"Overall, it was probably the best performance of the year," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said.
While climbing up to seventh place in the Western Conference standings, the Suns posted their sixth consecutive victory. They’re also only 1 1/2 games shy of sixth place and within sniffin’ distance of fifth, but Hornacek isn’t about to get greedy.
"We’re just trying to get in," he said in regard to the postseason chase. "We’re not concerned with trying to climb the ladder and get way up there.
"Our schedule gets harder; we’re just trying to win those games we have in front of us right now."
That translates to having the focus to put away the succession of Eastern Conference patsies the Suns have faced before the Western Conference gauntlet they’ll run in April.
With continued stellar play from a collection of players expected to win about 20 games fewer than the already have, nothing the Suns accomplish now should be surprising.
In Friday’s clouting the Knicks, the roll call of career-year performers began with power forward Markieff Morris, who hit New York for 14 points (5 of 6 from the field) and six rebounds … in the first half. He finished with 16 and eight in a few ticks more than 26 minutes.
After entering the season seemingly expected to slouch toward the end of his rookie contract, Markieff continues to thrive. An example of this maturation happened during a second-quarter Suns possession that found Markieff defended by Knicks guard Iman Shumpert beyond the 3-point line. Rather than hoist it from there (as what a habit of the old Markieff), Morris put the ball on the floor, took Shumpert to the low-post torture chamber and scored inside.
But Friday’s performance was more typical than remarkable this year for a player who entered the season widely considered a potential bust relative to his selection near the end of the 2011 NBA Draft lottery.
That’s also a pretty fair assessment of twin brother Marcus, who didn’t shoot very well against New York but did a nice job of guarding Carmelo Anthony during Phoenix’s 28-14 blitz in the second quarter.
While Markieff seems to be the barometer for how well the Suns will perform, the constant is Goran Dragic.
Dragic, who has ascended to extremely good from last season’s pedestrian ranks of plain ol’ good, scored 18 points during the Suns’ 34-point first quarter. He added five stitches above his left eye in the second thanks to an intersection with the left elbow of Knicks center Tyson Chandler.
"When that happened," Dragic said, "I tried to poke the ball from him and he turned around and hit me, his elbow straight in my eye. I don’t know what’s going on; it’s always my left eye. This is like the fifth time. Now, every time I take a photo for my passport, I’m turning to (the right) side."
For Hornacek, getting roughed up now and then is part of the job.
"We tell the guys, ‘If you play hard, you’re gonna get hurt a few times,’ " Hornacek said. "That’s what Goran does. He ran off because he wanted to get back."
Considering how the Knicks were defending, who could blame him?
After returning, "The Dragon" — who had 20 points at the time — knocked in another dozen, recording his ninth 30-plus-point game of the season.
"They didn’t play very good defense," Dragic said of the Knicks. "We could get everything we wanted. We could just swing the ball and find the open guy."
New York also helped Phoenix center Miles Plumlee become a bit more statistically healthy. Plumlee, who didn’t play long enough in any one game with Indiana during his rookie season to break a sweat, contributed 11 points and 12 rebounds, with four of his five field goal registered as highlight-reel-caliber dunks.
"That’s what we need from him," Hornacek said. "When he plays like that, the center position’s pretty good."
Aside from some enjoyable offensive exploits, the growth-industry Suns once again played some upper-register defense.
In the five games prior to this rout of the Knicks, the Suns had limited the opposition to 97.7 points per 100 possessions. On the season, they’re surrendering 106.6.
While holding New York below the 90-point level, Phoenix forced the visitors to shoot a chilly 40.2 percent from the field.
"I think we played the game well on both ends of the floor," Dragic said. "We were helping each other. We played as a team, and when we play the right way, it’s really tough to beat us, and I think nobody can stop us."