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Aftermath: Bender struggles, Chriss shines as Suns youth movement rolls on

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Dragan Bender is struggling with his mask, while Marquese Chriss finds energy in inspired outing against the Spurs.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

While the Phoenix Suns trudge on with their youth movement this season under the tutelage of interim head coach Jay Triano, their youngest player is experiencing one of the worst stretches of production of his career.

Over his last seven games (more than 105 minutes), barely-20 Dragan Bender has scored a grand total of 12 points, pulled down 11 rebounds and dished 7 assists. Total. In those 105+ minutes, his team has been outscored by 52 points. His minutes have dwindled from 25 to 12 to 7 to 5 over his last four games.

Is it the coach’s fault for not playing Bender more? Or is it Bender’s fault for not making the most of his time on the court?

Both, I suppose.

But I’ll tell you that what I saw from Bender these last two games was a lot of hesitant, soft play that produced terrible results. He was -17 on Thursday night in just 7 minutes, and then -9 on Saturday night in just 5 minutes. Sure it’s not all Bender’s fault, but he did not do anything positive to impact the game.

I asked coach Triano about Dragan’s lack of playing time after Saturday’s game.

“Absolutely,” Triano said of wanting better energy from Bender in games.

“I know he’s being bothered by the mask,” Triano explained further. “He can’t see peripherally. It’s tough to go rebound when you can’t see sideways.”

Bender has been wearing a face mask to protect a recently-broken nose, but that doesn’t explain an overall lack of energy and effort. He is passing up shots again, not initiating any real offense, and even defensively he’s suffering. At least twice in last night’s game, he sagged so far off on defense that a short guard was able to fire a relatively uncontested two over his outstretched hand for an easy score.

Triano can’t want for Bender’s mask to come off.

“Five more days,” he said. “We know exactly,”

Before you complain that Triano isn’t playing his young players enough, take a look at the minutes distribution so far this season. Of the top seven players in minutes played, only Mike James and T.J. Warren are older than 22.

You can’t blame Triano for trying to help his young guys a bit by sprinkling in minutes for the older guys in each lineup.

The Suns got down as many as 19 points to a Spurs team missing four of their five top players and playing their 5th game in 7 nights. Their biggest runs were spurred by the likes of Bryn Forbes (who eventually hit the game-winning three), Brandon Paul, Joffrey Lauvergne, Darrun Hilliard, Davis Bertans and Brandon Paul.

“Took us twenty-four minutes to find a group that would play with the right energy,” Triano said. “I mean, we just seemed to be a step slower, you know. I was mixing guys in and out trying to look for offense, defense, anything that would give us some juice and finally got it in the second half.”

A combination largely consisting of Warren, Greg Monroe, Mike James, Troy Daniels and Jared Dudley went on a 17-4 run to cut the Spurs big lead to two points late in the third quarter to help restore the team’s and fans’ spirits. That arena was refreshingly rocking when Daniels hit that corner three to cut the lead to two.

Then a pair of fourth quarter runs of 12-2 and 5-0 put the Suns on top — again with a roaring crowd — with just over a minute left. The run was spurred by the energy of Marquese Chriss and Josh Jackson, along with James, Warren and Tyson Chandler.

“I think we just had to play with some heart,” Marquese Chriss said after the game. “They were embarrassing us a little bit, especially with them coming off the back-to-back resting players.”

The crowd really helped motivate the players, especially in the fourth quarter.

“It was good to hear the crowd going crazy for us when we were doing good,” Chriss said. “Especially when we get steals, playing good defense and things like that. I just think it helps us build a lot of energy on the offensive end.”

Chriss put the Suns on top 100-99 with a steal and breakaway dunk.

Bryn Forbes, of all players, hit the three with 21 seconds left to put the Spurs up 102-101. Mike James and Jared Dudley each missed a three on the next two possessions.

James’ three was a head scratcher. The Spurs “blew up the play” that was meant for T.J. Warren to create a shot, but all James did was dribble out the clock and launch a 27-foot three that didn’t fall. James had made 5 threes on the night, but couldn’t drain a sixth.

Dudley’s missed three was a rushed shot from the corner. Great execution on the Suns part to create a three pointer with only 1.6 seconds on the clock, but Dudley couldn’t get his feet set and took an unbalanced heave that hit the side of the backboard.

Chriss finished with 15 points and 8 rebounds. After scoring 11 on Thursday night, he now has his first back-to-back 10+ point outings of the season.

T.J. Warren had 24 points and Mike James finished with 25 to lead the Suns in scoring.

The Suns lost to the Spurs for the 11th time in their last 12 attempts, but at least this one was close and exciting for most of the second half.