Upstart Phoenix keeps Lakers on downward spiral
PHOENIX — Beating L.A. isn’t what it used to be.
That’s especially true for a Suns team screaming in the opposite direction of the sinking Lakers they encountered at U.S. Airways Center on Monday night.
"It definitely felt different," Phoenix power forward Channing Frye, a veteran of this little Pacific Division rivalry, said after a 117-90 Suns rout. "We were pretty zoned in right now, and they (Lakers) have been decimated by injuries and still trying to find themselves."
For Suns fans still finding it hard to imagine their team now checking in at 17-10, there wasn’t much reason to bother dragging out the tried and true "Beat L.A.!" chant.
Of course, it certainly can be difficult mustering excitement over taking down a depleted Lakers team currently working without Kobe Bryant.
On the villain meter, this made the Kobe-free Lakers appearance as imposing as Hannibal Lecter showing up without a bottle of Chianti.
The Lakers (13-15) attempted to navigate the particulars of coach Mike D’Antoni’s offensive system without Bryant and a real-life point guard while the Suns won for the eighth time in their last nine games.
And while the rest of the league is stunned by their rise from allegedly tank-worthy to fifth-place in the conference standings leading into Christmas, Frye isn’t.
"I knew this team was something special in training camp," he said, "when the starting lineup would never smash the backups, and the backups never backed down."
That suggests depth of character and rotation, giving Phoenix eight players averaging between nine and 19 points.
Against L.A., Gerald Green and the Morris twins came off the bench to make a combined 17-of-29 shots from the field and finish with 50 points. Green, who scored a game-high 22, made 6-of-11 shots from behind the 3-point line. Marcus Morris (19 points) made 5 of 6 from back there.
The Suns, who converted 15 of 30 3s in Saturday’s victory over Dallas, were 14 of 32 overall. Even though Frye wrecked Phoenix’s percentage by missing 7 of 8, his enthusiastic post-game attitude demonstrated the team-first mentality permeating this team.
"We just play hard," Frye said. "We don’t know any different. We know we have to play hard every time we go out there."
Another example is center Miles Plumlee, who — along with Green — continued paying multiplying dividends following a trade with the Indiana Pacers that at the time seemed more important for its draft-pick bounty.
Going against Lakers star Pau Gasol during early stretches of this encounter, Plumlee scored 17 points (one short of his career high from back on opening night) and took down a career-high 20 rebounds.
"He’s turned into a great player for us," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said.
For the sake of Suns staying power, Plumlee thinks he can provide even more.
"With everything that shows up on the stat sheet, I think that was definitely my best game," the second-year pro said. "But I left a lot of things on the table, too. So it’s exciting, I guess, because I know that I can do better."
Well, we’ve gotten fairly deep into a review of another Phoenix victory without writing anything about its two-headed, point-guard monster. Eric Bledsoe was stellar again, providing the Suns with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists, while Goran Dragic added a more pedestrian 12, three and seven.
Their dribble penetration against a Lakers team attempting to use card-carrying three-man Xavier Henry and shooting guard Jodie Meeks against them helped constrict the defensive resistance, creating open 3-point looks for teammates.
When the Lakers attempted to stay attached to shooters in the third quarter, the Suns — who had 16 paint points over the first two quarters — adjusted enough to have 12 in each of the next two.
While the offense began Monday night ranked fifth in the league for efficiency, the defense hadn’t been as perky. Although the Suns were ranked second in 3-point percentage defense, the trade-off in being a bit more generous on other parts of the floor was too great.
But against the Lakers, Phoenix had enough ball pressure and rotational pluck to limit L.A. to 37-percent shooting, including 30 percent (6 of 20 from 3-point range). With a 62-39 gap in rebounding, it also is pretty obvious they were finishing most of those defensive possessions.
So, now that the Bledsoe-Dragic experiment is yielding a superior offensive flow and the defense may be getting better at following the plan, the Suns are threatening to make this run seem even more legit.
"I felt that if in our first 25 we could go 15-10," Frye said, "we’d give ourselves a chance."
And with that accomplished, a lot more people are doing the same.