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Aftermath: Suns relieved after Memphis win, but not straying from goal

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The Phoenix Suns staved off a little bit of extra humiliation, but refuse to stray from the process of developing their youth and winning the right way.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

When the Phoenix Suns broke an 8-game losing streak to the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday, they momentarily stopped a slide into ignominy.

By winning, the Suns avoided a few milestones: their first winless February, tying a franchise-long overall losing streak, and a creating a new franchise-long home losing streak.

The win over Memphis allowed the Suns to finish February with a 1-9 record. They not only stopped their 13-game overall losing streak dating back to January 23, but led the entire second half and won by more than a single basket for the first time since December 18 (31 games ago).

"I'm happy for those guys," Memphis coach Dave Joerger said. "Happy for Earl (Watson), I love (Mirza) Teletovic and I love their young guys, they're only going to keep getting better."

You'd think the Suns would be whooping and hollering, but they weren't.

"We're staying within the process," interim coach Earl Watson said afterward. "It's just one win. It's not a celebration, it's not a championship, it's not a major leap in the right direction. It's one step forward."

The players agreed.

"The only thing I'm excited for is Earl getting his first win," P.J. Tucker said. "It's much deserved."

Tucker tracked down the game ball to make sure Earl Watson had a momento of his first NBA win as head coach.

"He really cares," Tucker said. "It's a tough situation, not wanting to wish (it on) anybody, especially for their first time being a head coach. But at the end of the day he really cares. He's been putting work in and trying to motivate guys to get guys to play. Me and him have become close and I just have a lot of respect for him. So I just wanted to make sure I gave it to him."

Alex Len said the same things about Watson immediately after the buzzer to Fox Sports Arizona's Kevin Ray. The players are happy for Watson, who took longer to get his first NBA win than any coach in Suns history.

"He (Watson) texted me before the game," Len said later in the locker room. "Saying, ‘you're going to start. Be ready.' And I said, ‘yeah I'll be ready, let's get this win. We're going to get a win for you.' And he was like, ‘no, let's get it for us.' I said,' let's do it.'"

There's nothing better than recapping a text convo between you and another person, huh? We've all been there.

Watson

For those who've been listening/reading Watson's quotes for weeks and getting tired of hearing the same rhetoric about "process" and "love", at least be satisfied with the knowledge that he didn't suddenly change his tune to crow about a single win. Watson was unperturbed, focusing more on what they did right than using the game as a referendum on his coaching chops.

"What I'm more impressed with is this," Watson explained. "We probably played the most physical, aggressive team in the NBA. They hit us, they elbowed us. What did we do? We hit them back, we elbowed them, and it became a brawl. But we did not only brawl with them, we never slowed down our pace. So it wasn't an 85 to 92 victory. It was in the 100's. We had our pace, we had our aggression. We stayed focused."

The Grizzlies had won 13 of 17 games, including 4 of 5 since losing Marc Gasol to injury. And the Suns handled them from the opening tip, only losing the lead or moments in the first and second quarters. But after Memphis took their final lead at 32-31, the Suns stormed back and never let it go.

Watson even talked about that, in a way only Watson does.

"What we emphasize as a staff," he said. "And as a family and as a program: we're going to take this losing, and out of losing we're always going to find something positive.

"And the positive thing is, one day we're going to be in a game. A team is going to make a run, and when we get to a timeout and we're emotional, we have to realize we've been through the worst already. We've been through the worst, so this is nothing. This is a step. Let's take the step forward and shut off the run."

Watson is being forced to do this with kids still learning their way in the league. Even John Jenkins, a fourth year guard at 24 years old just claimed off waivers last week, acknowledges being on the Suns is new to him because he's more experienced than a lot of the roster.

Alex Len

Meet your new #1 scoring option, folks. Alex Len will get big minutes and lots of touches in the paint from now on, and Watson says Len will be their top option on offense while also being expected to play defense.

Len responded with 22 points and 16 rebounds, including scoring 8 of those points in the pivotal fourth quarter where the Suns refused to back down.

"The young fella Len had a great game," Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph said. "He hit some big shots."

Two of Len's biggest shots came in the fourth quarter, where he decisively made a mid-range jumper in Randolph's face as the game was getting uncomfortably close and then put back a missed three by Tucker with a catch-and-slam in a single motion.

Meet Alex Len, power forward.

"It's not going to change the rest of the season," Watson said of Len starting next to Tyson Chandler. "It's time for Alex Len to get experience. He hit clutch shots, clutch jump-shots, clutch rebounds, clutch defensive sets he had to guard and defend. He and [Devin Booker], they need this opportunity. And within this opportunity we can still win, but we have to accept the challenge and stay involved in the process, and it's just one step forward."

If you're going to force-feed a player into being a #1 option, it's much better to force-feed your 22 year old former #5 overall pick. This feels a lot better than watching Watson coax out Markieff Morris' best two weeks of the season. Alex Len is one of the team's hardest workers and is loaded with untapped potential. Now Watson is turning his attention to making the most out of Len.

Of course, I'm skeptical that Len will deliver on a consistent basis. He's shown little in his first three years in the league of being a go-to player for an NBA team. But when you're part of a "process" and that process is about developing youth and playing for a high draft pick, well then making Alex Len your #1 option is a genius move.

In 4 games since the All-Star break, Len is averaging 18 points and 11 rebounds in 27 minutes of play. And this is while Len is nursing a sore ankle that he turned just after the break.

Maybe all Alex Len needed was to be heaped with expectations?

P.J. Tucker

"P.J. Tucker had a hell-of-a game," Grizzlies guard Mike Conley said. "I thought that he really kind of set the tempo for them both offensively and defensively. Everybody kind of followed suit and it was their night."

Tucker approached his first ever triple-double, having at least 7 rebounds, points AND assists before the end of the third quarter. But while he kept scoring (17) and rebounding (11), he left the playmaking duties to the guards the rest of the way.

Tucker represents exactly what coach Watson is trying to preach. Watson loved the Suns physicality, their ability to stay with a tough team as the team played tougher and tougher. That's what Tucker does.

"You got to win the rebounding battles," Tucker said. "They're so good (at) offensive and defensive rebounding, they're such a ‘bang-bang' team that if you don't rebound, you're going to lose the game."

The Suns out-rebounded the Grizzlies by a whopping 22 rebounds - 56 to 34.

"We talked about starting Alex (Len) and Tyson (Chandler) together," Tucker said. "I loved the lineup. We're big, we're strong, and I very seriously doubt we ever get outrebounded with that lineup. We like stealing rebounds from each other; we always laugh and joke because we're all really good rebounders. Being able to close that paint down even more and getting our guards to stay in front of other guards, with that lineup, it could definitely work for us."

For the foreseeable future, get ready for Alex Len to be the #1 scoring option with Devin Booker being #2 and Archie Goodwin being a hybrid scorer from the wing. It's really too bad T.J. Warren is missing out on this opportunity.