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Led by Tyler Ulis, Suns second unit leads them to win over Utah

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Phoenix’s second unit outscored Utah’s 38-9 on Wednesday night.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last two games, the Phoenix Suns have answered the challenges of their new head coach Jay Triano. Whether it’s giving maximum effort on both ends unless you want to get benched or letting his point guards have control of the offense at times, they’re acing the test so far.

Two guys who had “A+” type performances on Wednesday against Utah were Tyler Ulis and Alex Len. Ulis finished with 13 points, 5 assists, and 2 steals while Len had his seventh career double-double off the bench with 13 points and 13 rebounds.

With Alan Williams lost for the season with a torn meniscus, which happened just prior to training camp, Ulis has been trying to find the right match to fill Big Sauce’s void.

Ulis, who looks plenty energized and rather motivated after those first three games of the season, created a spark for the second unit. In the process, he’s starting to create some on-court synergy with the likes of Josh Jackson and Len.

Early on in Wednesday’s game, when Triano subbed in Ulis, Jackson, and Len, Phoenix’s lead began to balloon to nearly 20 points. It was making the smart, extra pass with Ulis’ innate court vision.

And Ulis believes the pick-and-roll combo with Len is well on its way to blossoming here soon. With Williams showing Len the ins-and-outs of what Ulis is looking for on the floor, this, in turn, should lead to even more success between this duo sooner rather than later.

“Definitely, it’s just about getting a feel for each other,” Ulis said. “Finding the spots and just getting into the open lanes. I told Alan to actually talk to him about it because I can’t really show him how to do it because I don’t roll myself. We’ll get it down, though.

Two plays that really stood out to me involving this second unit trio involved Ulis feeding them both at the rim for easy drives set up off his vision tactics.

Late in the third, Ulis drew Raul Neto in and baited him. With Ulis controlling it, he was able to lawl Thabo Sefolosha into ball-watching. Both Jackson and Ulis realized this immediately as Phoenix’s No. 4 pick in 2017 went full speed. Ulis then hit Neto with a hesitation on his pump fake, allowing Jackson that extra space to slam it down.

In the fourth quarter with 10 minutes left, Ulis called for a screen from Len in the corner, who hedged hard on Neto. Both Neto and Ekpe Udoh follow Ulis towards the rim as Len sneakily slips behind Utah’s rim protector. Ulis then hit him with a soft touch pass over the top and Len finished it.

Devin Booker, who has been playing alongside Ulis since AAU circuits, totally believes that when Ulis is sharing the wealth like he was on Wednesday, as far as ball movement goes, it makes everybody else want to make that extra pass, too.

“For sure,” Booker said of if Ulis’ playmaking makes other guys on the floor want to spread the ball around, too. “He can score the ball, but at the same time, he’s known as a pass-first point guard. He makes the game easier for a lot of people. I’ve known that forever being a friend with him, so seeing him do it on this level is good to see.

The Suns second unit, which outscored Utah’s 38 to 9, was a major bright spot.

As Triano alluded to postgame, he doesn’t have substitution patterns. You will come out when you get tired, but if you don’t show maximum effort on both ends he’s going to yank you out immediately.

For example, we saw this early in the second half as Marquese Chriss missed a defensive assignment, then Triano went to Dragan Bender way earlier than he usually subs in.

Luckily for Ulis, Jackson, and Len, this trio proved to be critical to their victory. One thing that continues to stand out through the first two games of the Triano era, he’s holding them accountable and seems like the players actually appreciate that.

“Our bench guys were great,” Triano said of the second unit’s performance. “Tyler’s been playing very well. Josh Jackson just comes in and brings great energy and he’s a guy who wants to be a great defender. Alex, I didn’t think he had a great game the other night, but Tyson played a lot of the minutes. Tonight, Alex just comes in and just goes to the rim. He goes to the rim, good things happen. I was pleased with all of our guys.”

Unlike the first three games of the season, where the Suns seemed to rely on Eric Bledsoe and Booker extensively through iso-ball, Triano’s sets appear to play toward the rosters actual strengths. What general manager Ryan McDonough highlighted after firing Watson, as far as wanting to see more ball movement, is happening with Triano.

Even though it’s only two games, there are some visual progressions being made right in front of our eyes. And seeing Ulis lead and make things more comfortable for the likes of Jackson and Len will play a huge role over the next few weeks.

“We saw Tyler drive-and-kick. The next play, Josh was a drive-and-kick,” Triano said of how the second unit’s ball movement impacted Wednesday’s game. “We’re going to get better at where we’re supposed to be and keeping the floor spaced so we can do that more often. We’re long and athletic and we have the ability to turn corners and get in the paint. Again, the only thing I would say, we’ve got to play without fouling, but at the same time, I don’t want to take away our aggressiveness.”