Suns must sustain momentum on trip, resolve Bledsoe’s return
The crowd goes berserk as another 3-point bomb detonates. An already-blistering pace accelerates to a dangerous, execution-challenging level that the coach, a former NBA star, actually prefers. A thick, organic playoff atmosphere bullies players toward confrontational calibers of intensity.
Yeah, that reads very much like what occurred Thursday night at US Airways Center.
But there’s a high probability of duplication Sunday night in Oakland, where the Suns carry the Western Conference’s fragile seventh seed into a play date with the sixth-seeded Warriors.
The next night, they’ll be in Los Angeles to challenge a fourth-seeded Clippers team that recently knocked them off in Phoenix and then clobbered the Lakers by 48 points.
Whatever emotional cloud-surfing the Suns experienced after their galvanizing blitz of the Thunder needs to carry over in this two-game roadie. The back-to-back challenge will complete a four-game Western Conference gauntlet that began with the aforementioned home game against the Clippers. Having only 23 opportunities remaining when it began, the Suns — who’ve attacked the season in four-game blocks — are aware of its consequences.
"Obviously it’s a tough stretch," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. "Hopefully we can win some of the games. You hope that you can get on a little bit of a run here, maybe win two or three of these for sure, and then maybe that propels you into the rest of the season."
Following their loss to the Clippers, during which they had a 12-point lead in the second half, the Suns managed to rally from 16 down to knock off OKC. And even though dropping the Warriors and Clippers on the road seems like a daunting task at this time of the year, the Suns players trust themselves to make it happen.
But they wouldn’t be sitting at 36-25 and fearing nobody without the belief instilled in them by Hornacek and his coaching staff.
"At the end of the day, Coach gives us free reign to go out there and do what we can do," said Gerald Green, whose 25-point third quarter was the catalyst in that win over the Thunder. "It’s not just me … everyone on this team is having a career year. He puts players in great positions to succeed.
"Just look at everybody, from the starting five to the bench. I could never have the season I’m having if it wasn’t for this team and the coaching staff. That’s why he’s Coach of the Year, in my opinion."
Hornacek certainly has reminded the league of how important it is to choose the right coach for the right situation. And he’ll have even more on his strategic plate when point guard Eric Bledsoe returns.
Bledsoe, who’s been out for over two months after having a section of his meniscus removed, reportedly will suit up within the next week. Since the Suns were truly clicking before his injury, this should make things easier for Hornacek, right?
Well, yes … eventually. But like OKC (which has lost four of its seven games with Russell Westbrook back on the floor), the Suns must re-learn how things fit together with one of their biggest pieces back in the fold, as Bledsoe will slide back in alongside Goran Dragic.
"You have to get him in at some point," Hornacek said. "We have to figure out how to get him into that without screwing up our rotation."
Over the last couple of months, Dragic has been a league-wide revelation. And Green, who finished with a career-high 41 points Thursday night, has hit the opposition for 20 or more points 11 times since Bledsoe went out.
Does Green leave the starting lineup, as he did earlier when Bledsoe had the thigh contusion, and join the Morris twins on a potentially devastating second unit? Does he move to small forward and push defensive stopper P.J. Tucker to the bench?
A lot of rotations that have been established will have to be reworked.
Despite the juggling, having a player of Bledsoe’s talents will help; it’s just a matter of when he’s fit enough to compete at his typical level and how/when the Suns attempt to blend him back into the lineup. Trying this in Oakland or L.A. could be risky considering the tightly bunched nature of the Western Conference standings with only 21 games remaining.
"It takes a couple games to get back to being used to the rotations and who you’re out there playing with," Hornacek said. "That’s hard. We can’t afford that at that point when he comes back, so hopefully it’s seamless and guys jump right back into it."
The Suns will be back home Wednesday night to take on the resurgent Cavaliers before playing in three Eastern Conference cities (Boston, Toronto and Brooklyn) across four nights.
For the Suns, their fans and the league-wide watchdogs now tracking their every move, being much better than expected no longer is enough to sustain any satisfaction.
"We have to play hard and try to make a lot of wins and try to push for a playoff seed," Dragic said. "In the end, if you don’t make the playoffs, nobody is going to talk about us."