PHOENIX — The Suns have performed a sometimes-unnerving stutter-step while approaching the quarter pole of their rebuild-commitment season.
Seemingly indifferent toward being truly solid or profoundly mediocre while maintaining little other than inconsistency, they’re still considered one of the NBA’s surprise teams.
“There have been a lot of surprises that have helped us,” first-year Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said before Friday’s 106-97 triumph over the Raptors that was his team’s 11th victory in 20 games.
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For now, Phoenix shares the Western Conference’s eighth seed with surprisingly average Golden State.
Anyway, there were certain anticipated givens before Hornacek and the monetarily streamlined roster began a campaign that generated little national interest.
“You can always play defense,” said Hornacek, who apparently was not referring to last season’s 25-57 squad. “You can always play hard.”
But the elephant in the expectation room was offense.
“Maybe sometimes the more difficult thing is, ‘How are we going to score?’ That was a concern going into the season,” Hornacek said. “We have some point guards, but with the percentages that were shot here last year … we have new guys, but we just didn’t know how it was going to work out scoring-wise.”
Against the Raptors (6-12), it worked out relatively well because the good version of Markieff Morris — whose temporary eruption allowed him to seize Western Conference Player of the Week honors — showed up to provide 25 points on 11-of-14 shooting.
Point guards Eric Bledsoe (19 points) and Goran Dragic (14) were a tick under their usual level of efficiency, but their transition chops — coupled with a defensive effort that limited the Raptors to 40 percent shooting — allowed the Suns to bag another 19 fast-break points. Thanks to upgrades in field-goal-percentage defense and defensive rebounding, Phoenix still leads the NBA in fast-break points per game.
That’s a specific area of improvement, helping the Suns rise to ninth in offensive efficiency after moving Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley and Luis Scola.
“So far, it’s been pretty good in terms of our effective field-goal percentage,” Hornacek said of a statistical category that finds the Suns ranked sixth in the league. “So that’s been a surprise, along with contributions we’re getting from some players.”
Hornacek singled out the unexpected impact of second-year center Miles Plumlee, the improvement of the Morris twins and the ability of P.J. Tucker to upgrade his offensive game while maintaining his focus as the team’s defensive stopper.
Tucker, who locked down James Harden in Wednesday’s road victory over the Rockets, largely was responsible for Friday’s 6-of-15 effort from Raptors forward Rudy Gay. A former refugee of the European professional circuit, Tucker also snagged 13 rebounds (six on the offensive boards) and made eight free throws to offset a 4-of-12 shooting performance.
The key to any continued offensive uprising, of course, is the ability of the double-point-guard backcourt to create opportunities for teammates and themselves.
“Goran and Eric are playing like we expected them to play,” Hornacek said, not bothering to remind us how infrequently (due to injury) this tag-team approach has been available thus far.
On Friday, Hornacek separated his point guards for large chunks of the game. Dragic left midway through the first quarter, and Bledsoe sat much of the latter half of the second.
With 4:51 left to play and the Suns up by a dozen, he subbed Bledsoe for Dragic. Bledsoe quickly fired in a 3-pointer, but he followed that with a turnover that eventually led to Dragic returning at 3:20.
“We got a little crazy,”Hornacek said. “Tried to do a little too much maybe, made a few turnovers.”
Right, and after being rejoined by Dragic to close the game, Bledsoe coughed it up again.
“I think they try to torture us coaches. I don’t know,” Hornacek said of the team in general.
Bledsoe views things a bit differently.
“Whoever is handling the ball and making great decisions at the time is the one that’s going to handle the ball,” Bledsoe said of sharing team-running responsibilities with Dragic. “Like I said, I think we did a great job of keeping our composure throughout the whole game.”
As for our review of the first 20 games, perhaps the most surprising contribution has been provided by Channing Frye, who missed all of last season with an enlarged heart.
“We didn’t think he would play,” Hornacek said, adding that if a Frye comeback occurred, “the expectation would be for him to work his way into game shape by around … now.”