What a difference a week can make.
Last Wednesday, the Phoenix Suns were sitting at 3-4 after two dispiriting losses to the Detroit Pistons and Oklahoma City Thunder. Today, the Suns enter their game against the 7-3 Chicago Bulls with the wind at their backs, sitting at 6-4 and in 4th place in the Western Conference.
It can be argued that Phoenix took advantage of three schedule wins, beating teams playing on the second night of back-to-backs each time. However, the Suns can only play the schedule they've been given, and considering Phoenix's penchant over the years of playing down to their opponent's level, the team should be applauded for finally taking advantage of their schedule. In fact, the three straight wins by 14 points or more is the Suns' first such streak since the 2009-10 season.
Unsurprisingly, the driving force behind Phoenix's recent surge has been the guard play. One of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight has scored 30 points in each of the three wins, with Knight providing the duo's latest exclamation point.
Knight's line of 30 points, 15 assists, 10 rebounds, and 4 steals against the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday has been equaled only three times in NBA history, thrusting Knight into elite company, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
|Mar. 8, 2015
|Mar. 29, 1981
|Jan. 17, 1975
Also according to Elias, Knight joins Charlie Scott as the only other Sun with a triple-double of at least 30 points, 15 assists, and 10 rebounds (42 points, 15 assists, 10 rebounds on Nov. 23, 1972) and is the first player since Michael Jordan in 1985 to have those numbers in his first career triple-double.
All this comes two games after Knight lit up the other Los Angeles team — the Clippers — to the tune of a career-high-tying 37 points. During this three-game stretch, Knight has averaged 25.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists, and 1.7 steals on 50.9 percent shooting from the field and 47.6 percent from 3 (10 of 21).
But while Knight has been spectacular for the most part during the three-game win streak, he did struggle against the Denver Nuggets. That is where Bledsoe comes in. For the scatter plot that has been Knight's season over the first 10 games, Bledsoe has been the line of best fit.
Bledsoe has scored 20 or more points in seven of the Suns' first 10 games and has strung together a career-best five consecutive going into today. His numbers over the last three games of 25.7 points, 6 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 2 steals on 62.2 percent shooting from the field and 46.7 percent from 3 (7 of 15) are impressive but that those stats are not a significant departure from his season averages is even more so.
The combination of Bledsoe and Knight in the backcourt is finally fulfilling the promise of the dual-playmaker system that has only come in fits and starts since Hornacek and GM Ryan McDonough arrived in 2013. Bledsoe and Knight are averaging 23 and 20.2 points respectively and would become the first Suns tandem since Stephon Marbury (22.3) and Shawn Marion (21.2) in 2002-03 to finish a season averaging over 20 points each. Bledsoe and Knight would also be the first starting backcourt in Phoenix to each average 20 points since Gail Goodrich and Dick Van Arsdale did so in 1969-70.
"We feel that one of those two guys is going to have an advantage," coach Jeff Hornacek said after the game against the Lakers. "Maybe one night it will be Eric, one night it will be Brandon. We'll try to take advantage of the matchups and who's rolling and just let them go."
The recent play of Bledsoe and Knight has played a significant part in Phoenix's success, but they have hardly been a two-man band. Other youngsters on the team have followed the example set by the team's two best players and taken their games to another level.
T.J. Warren tied his career high in points with 18 against the Clippers on Nov. 12 and then broke that with 19 points against the Lakers, doing his damage mostly through constant motion. Over the winning streak, he has averaged 15 points, 4 rebounds, and 1.3 steals on 63.3 percent shooting from the field.
Warren also logged his 9th game of making 2/3rds of his field-goal attempts (minimum 9 FGAs) in that Laker game. According to basketball-reference.com, that ties Yao Ming's total over the first 50 games of a career and is the most since Tim Duncan had 10 such games in his rookie year. Only Shaquille O'Neal (13), Billy Owens (13), and Chris Webber (11) ever had more. For Warren, five of those games have come this season and four have come in the last six games.
"T.J. is always going to score when he gets those opportunities, especially when the game gets up and down. That's when he's really good," Hornacek said. "He's that instant scorer. And he has good instincts for the ball."
Archie Goodwin is another player who has emerged as of late. After spending three of the first six games in his warm-ups, Goodwin moved past Sonny Weems in the rotation and has been the first guard off the bench in Ronnie Price's absence, playing 29 and 25 minutes over the past two games while averaging 12 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 2 assists in that span.
Coach Hornacek said recently he would consider giving extended looks to Goodwin, Weems, and Devin Booker to see if anyone would step up to claim that backup two guard spot. To this point, Goodwin has answered the bell.
"We like the enthusiasm, the energy level, his ability to get to the basket," Hornacek said of Goodwin's recent play. "We're not looking for him to shoot threes; we got a lot of outside shooters. We need those guys to take it to the basket, and he's long and he can take it to the basket and get some easy buckets for us. He's done that, and his defense has been pretty good. We always told him that's going to be the thing that keeps you on the court: your defense."
The improved play of the young players on the bench has led to a longer leash from Hornacek, who let a lineup of Warren, Goodwin, Alex Len, Mirza Teletovic, and Knight close out the Lakers in the 4th quarter despite Phoenix holding just a five point lead after three quarters. By the time Bledsoe returned with four minutes left to play, the lead had grown to 12, the bench was fired up, and the rout was on.
"I think the chemistry on this team is really good right now," Hornacek said. "They're all cheering for each other. That's a great sign that the coaches see, that they're supporting each other, and when you do that, good things happen."
"These guys, they root for you," concurred Knight about his teammates, who made sure Knight knew how close he was to his first triple-double and celebrated wildly when that last rebound dribbled out to him at half court. "We root for each other. We're really brothers, really want everybody to be successful."
With team chemistry improving daily and the young guns on the roster feeling their oats, there's no reason to believe the Suns can't turn their recent stretch of good play into a season-long effort.