Suns hold off Wizards despite uneven rhythm

PHOENIX — Even during the Suns’ extended hustle toward prosperity, there’s plenty of adjusting required before a consistent, defense-shredding rhythm is achieved.

A nationally televised, 104-98 victory over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday was their 15th win in 21 games and pushed them to an impressive 10-4 in January.

But the feel-good recollections from last season make their current hold on the Western Conference’s eighth seed subject to prolonged, critical dissatisfaction.

With players, coaches, fans and the fourth estate grappling with questions regarding which player should do what (and at what time), the three-point-guard project continues to be a major talking point.

But the legion of Suns followers who’ve been fussing over how often Goran Dragic has the ball in his mitts should be (for now, at least) a bit relieved. This roller-coaster date with the Wizards (Washington’s fourth game in five nights) provided even more opportunities for The Dragon to initiate the offense and receive several opportunities to attack through the use of ball screens.

Against the Wizards — whose starters seemed a tad sluggish after working hard to knock off the Lakers in L.A. the night before — Dragic had enough participation to score 20 points. He made 8 of 15 shots from the field, using ball screens to reach the paint and score; Dragic also ended a chilly recent interlude (4 of 18 over the previous seven games) from behind the 3-point arc, making half of his four attempts against Washington.

When asked if recent use of weave action leading into a Dragic-starring, pick-and-roll was a nod toward keeping him more involved in the playmaking, Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said: "I don’t think we’ve gone with the early swing action like we were doing earlier, Our point guards — or whoever gets it out — seem to be taking it up the middle a little bit more, so we’re not getting in that swing.

"We try to use him in a different set, when he comes off a little down screen in to the pick-and-roll, so we try to use him in that way. But again, we want to keep the flow going of our offense and, you know, hopefully we get the ball where we’re swinging if from side to side and then he’s getting those opportunities."

But despite bouncing the ball earlier in the shot clock a bit more often, The Dragon had just two assists, while teammate Eric Bledsoe contributed a team-high six of the Suns’ 23 assists.

Suns 106, Wizards 98

Bledsoe, whose orientation to find open teammates has put the ball in his hands quite often since he has acquired from the L.A. Clippers, is more suited for this role than Dragic. And Dragic is more efficient shooting the ball.

This doesn’t mean either player should be limited to either activity. But instead of waiting to see if the coaches and players reach a suitable level of give and take, projections of doom prevail.

For some reason, professional and amateur critics seem to chafe whenever Dragic isn’t both scoring and providing a high number of assists. While he continues making that adjustment from dominant ball handler in Europe and the majority of his early NBA time, the Suns continue reaching for that delicate balance.

Bledsoe — who had eight points on 3 of 9, working mostly against former college teammate John Wall — isn’t anywhere near polished in the art of drive-and-kick. Although he doesn’t automatically go into orbit once reaching the lane anymore, Bledsoe still ends his dribble prematurely on occasion and must search for a bail-out pass while the shot clock bleeds.

Throw Isaiah Thomas into the stew (sometimes with both Bledsoe and Dragic) and the lurch toward role-playing clarity gets even trickier.

But doing so is required, because the 5-foot-9 Thomas made 4 of 8 3-pointers against the Wiz (he missed all 5 of his attempts inside the arc), scored 18 points overall and handed out four assists. And he contributes similarly quite often.

Against the Wizards, the Suns were splendid moving the ball and themselves … at times. They also spent an uncomfortable portion of the evening in relative quicksand.

"I think the first half was good, the second half wasn’t so great," Hornacek said. "We were a little hesitant to make that extra pass. We made them, but they were late. It was always, ‘I couldn’t get my stuff, so now I’m going to pass it.’

"We get into those times when we do that and we try to get some plays out there where different guys can touch the ball and move it around. A lot of times, it’s our basic offense where you come off there, if they’re going to jump you on the pick-and-roll, then you have to hit the roller and get it out of your hands quickly. You can’t sit there and hold the ball when two guys are on you. That’s where I thought we didn’t move it quick enough."

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