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Improved Suns face big litmus test at home against league powers

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The Suns next five games are all against playoff-level teams against whom they are 0-8 so far this year.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Sure, the Phoenix Suns have enjoyed notching big wins in five of their last seven games — more than their win total over the first 28 games combined — but a true litmus test of the team’s progress is coming now.

Over the next week, the Suns will host five of the league’s best teams at Talking Stick Resort Arena, and hopefully they won’t not trigger any nightmares from early season past.

You might remember how the Suns began this season, facing league juggernaut after juggernaut on their way to a franchise-worst start where they lost 8 of their first 13 games by 17 or more points.

Early this season, the Suns had a disastrous five-game home stand against the Spurs, Raptors, Grizzlies, Nets and Celtics. They only beat the Grizzlies in that stretch, losing the other four by a combined 68 points.

That was back when the Suns were still trying a starting lineup of veterans Ryan Anderson, Isaiah Canaan and Trevor Ariza around Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. The idea was to support the super-young cornerstones with wily, predictable veterans. Bad plan.

Six weeks later, those veterans are long gone. Canaan was cut, Ariza was traded and Anderson is now glued to the end of the bench playing the role a highly-paid spirit coach.

These days, Booker and Ayton are surrounded by rookies Mikal Bridges and De’Anthony Melton and one of the league’s most improved players in T.J. Warren.

That five-man lineup has held its own against the rest of the league (net-zero per 100 possessions) despite boasting THREE rookies. In just 70 minutes together, this new lineup has made 42% of their threes, grabbed 22 offensive rebounds and 21 steals.

Ayton, Booker and Warren grab the headlines for their counting stats and overall impact on the offensive end, but it’s the other guys that have made the team into a winner over the past two weeks.

Mikal Bridges has been a revelation in any role he’s played, mostly on the unsung defensive end. Among the starters, Bridges posts few counting stats but gets the assignment of guarding the opponents’ quickest offensive player (usually the point guard when Melton sits).

Melton gives the same kind of contributions as Bridges, tallying few counting stats when the good guys are in the game, but his defense helps shore up the perimeter and block driving and passing lanes.

Add in the perimeter defensive talents of new acquisition Kelly Oubre, Jr. and second-year guard Josh Jackson off the bench and you’ve suddenly got a few sharp edges on that swiss army knife of a 1-through-4 switching defense that coach Igor Kokoskov likes to play. Centers Deandre Ayton and Richaun Holmes takes turns as the only big on the floor, so any improvement on perimeter defense is a welcome development.

Check out these hustle stats: In December, the Suns are second in the league in “deflections” with 16.9 per game, second in steals with 10 per game, 9th in loose balls recovered on defense and 13th in three-point shots defended.

Here’s another stat to consider. In November, rookie center Deandre Ayton had to defend nearly 8 shots per game inside six feet — 7th in the entire league — while in December that’s dropped to just over 6 per game and 18th in the league. For those unaware of Ayton’s fledgling rim-protection skills as a 20 year old rookie, fewer shots for him to defend is a good thing.

Overall, the Suns opponents took 38% of their shots inside six feet of the rim in November — most in the entire league — while in December that’s dropped to 35% and 7th most overall. Progress.

I’m not saying these Suns are suddenly a winning team. They’re only 5-8 in December with the league’s 20th ranked defense and a still-paltry 26th ranking on offense this month.

But that’s miles better than the start of the year!

Let’s see how this new active, but super-young, lineup fares against the league’s best teams.

The Suns next seven games are at home. But the first five are versus the Thunder, Nuggets, Warriors, 76ers and Clippers, all playoff-bound teams against whom the Suns are 0-8 this year with a 13-point average margin of defeat.

Suns fans should be happy if their team pulls out ANY wins over this next five games.

What we will see, though, is just how much more competitive these guys are with their new rotation that boasts three rookies and five of nine players overall aged 22 or younger. The only wily veteran over the age of 25 in the rotation anymore is 38-year old Jamal Crawford, who missed last game with a sore knee. When he’s out, a fourth rookie (Elie Okobo) gets the backup point guard minutes.

Grab your popcorn, Suns fans, and let’s see what these guys are made of.