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Suns surging behind contributions from unexpected places

Phoenix Suns have won 13 of 16 games, partially thanks to a deep bench of positive contributors.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Your Phoenix Suns are now 23-11 and in second place in the Western Conference at the (almost) halfway point of the season. No Suns team has been as high as second in the West or had a record this good this late in the season since the SSOL days — 2008 to be exact.

Talk about a turnaround! Just two years ago, general manager James Jones inherited a roster that would win only 19 games all year (19-63). He took the full-time job at the beginning of the 2018-19 season, after league rosters were final, and had to watch that team burn while he methodically planned their rebirth. They finished with the league’s third-worst offense, second-worst defense and the worst franchise record in 50 years.

But at least a foundation was there. Amid the rubble, he had a future All-Star in Devin Booker and a pair of promising rookies in Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges. Those three still form the long-term backbone of this playoff-caliber team.

Jones quietly build around them. He found a way to turn Trevor Ariza, De’Anthony Melton, Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren and a few draft picks into players who would help produce a resurgent 34-39 season and then flipped some of those guys into Chris Paul.

He’s now got one of the league’s most talented starting lineups. But all along, it’s the small under-reported moves for deep bench players that turn an okay team into a really good one.

Early this season, Langston Galloway, Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter were big contributors off the bench. Then it was Frank Kaminsky and Abdel Nader unleashing the Frank-Nad-o, joined soon by E’Twaun Moore.

And then there’s the best bench guys of them all. Against the Lakers, Dario Saric scored 21 points to help push the Suns record to 23-11 for the year and leapfrog the Lakers for the 2nd seed in the Western Conference. Right next to him, Cam and his Johnson drained three triples while using every last body part to protect the rim on defense.

Dario, Cam, Cam and Doolie led the Suns to a big win over the Lakers, holding the fourth quarter lead they were given and even expanding on it.

“It was one of our best games of the year,” Jae Crowder said of the team effort.

If you’re a casual Suns fan, new to the team this year, you’re asking yourself ‘who?’

Don’t worry, so were us hard core Suns fans a couple months ago. Heck, even two weeks ago. Heck, even mid-game last night. For evidence, here’s me in my infinite wisdom at work late in the second quarter.

Then in the third and fourth quarters, Abdel Nader blocked three shots and drained a pair of key triples to help the Suns bench take an 11-point lead the Lakers would never even come close to erasing.

Nader was a throw-in to match salaries in the Chris Paul trade. Galloway, Moore and Payne signed league-minimum contracts in the off-season (Payne after washing out of the league for almost a year). Dario was originally dumped on the Suns by the T-Wolves to move up in the 2019 Draft for Jarrett Culver, while the Suns ‘reached’ for Cam Johnson at 11th overall. Jevon Carter was dumped on the Suns too, in the Jackson/Melton deal to clear space for Ricky Rubio.

Yet every one of those guys has made big contributions to a team that’s 23-11 this season and league-best 31-11 since the start of The Bubble.

“Our bench has been huge for us,” head coach Monty Williams said after the game, then taking the time to point out every single guy who subbed in.

The Phoenix Suns have now won 13 of their last 16 games and frankly could have won all 16. And who do they thank? The bench mob.

Yes, the Suns have two All-Stars, a pair of the league’s better young players, and an all-around plus vet at swing forward in their starting lineup. That group obviously delivers the most production and gets the lion share of credit for the team’s record this season.

But they don’t win 23 of 34 games without a consistently productive bench. On Tuesday night, the bench mob largely held off the league’s defending champs all by themselves.

“I thought we got better tonight, but we probably got more confidence that we can close out games on the road without Devin and Chris saving the day,” Williams said.

“Overall as a group we got better,” Jae Crowder said after the game, echoing Monty who said he was echoing Jae.

Indeed. All-Star and POM Booker was ejected early in the third quarter for arguing too much with the referees, and fellow All-Star Chris Paul only took four shots all game, making just one of them, as he focused on setting up his teammates (10 recorded assists) to keep the Lakers at bay. Deandre Ayton had a good start to the game, but Dario’s brilliance in the second half (coupled with the Lakers’ dearth of available big men) led to Ayton sitting out the final quarter-plus.

The Lakers (24-12 on the year) were without All-Star Anthony Davis for the seventh straight game (they are now 2-5 in that stretch), as well as Marc Gasol and Kyle Kuzma. All-World LeBron James tried to carry his team (38 points on 24 shots) but he did not get enough contributions from his own bench to hold off the Suns at home.

If you missed the game, here’s the highlights of the Suns 114-104 win in LA.

Next up

The Phoenix Suns play at home versus the Golden State Warriors on Thursday, a makeup game from the early-season postponement of a three-game home stand due to COVID protocols.

After that, Booker and Paul will head to Atlanta for All-Star weekend before the second half of the season kicks off in just over a week.

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