PHOENIX — Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Jason Richardson certainly had something to do with it as well, but one of the biggest reasons the Suns rolled to the Western Conference Finals last season was because of their game-changing bench.
Time and time again the bench would overwhelm an opponent to either get the Suns back in the game or extend a lead, culminating in that unit’s magnificent performance in Game 4 against the Lakers that led to a Craig Sager group postgame interview.
The Suns almost fielded two separate teams the way head coach Alvin Gentry often played starters and bench players as a unit, and in practice when the two sides faced off the bench held its own. The bench just brought a different energy and a tougher focus on defense as everybody knew their role in a unit where all the pieces fit perfectly.
“Last year it just worked out great from a chemistry standpoint and the roles were very easy to define and they kind of went along with it, so we’ll just have to see,” Gentry said when asked to compare this year’s bench to last year’s. “It’s going to be a work in progress though, it’s not going to be anything that happens over night.”
Such was the case with last year’s bench as well to start the season, as the Suns began the year with Channing Frye in the starting lineup, Goran Dragic as an unproven sophomore and Lou Amundson yet to earn the first real rotation role of his career.
But when Robin Lopez moved to the starting lineup to create well-defined roles for the entire Suns team (well, except perhaps LB), the bench became a unit that could overwhelm other backups.
On paper, this year’s bench could be better. Dragic, the leader of the bench on the floor, returns with Jared Dudley and Frye, and newcomers Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick add some punch on both sides of the ball. The perimeter defense should be lethal although the interior D is a bit iffy, and any one of those guys could go for double digits on any given night.
What we don’t know yet is if they will gel the same way last year’s bench did.
“It’s more of an athletic team with Josh coming in with that team,” Dudley said of the bench. “Defensively I think we have the chance of being better, but Channing and Warrick have to help us out just because bigs are crucial in the NBA, and us learning Warrick and learning Josh’s defense and offensive system, it takes time. That’s why chemistry is going to be huge for this team if we want any success, chemistry and rebounding.”
As Gentry has attempted to figure out rotations and see who plays well with each other (particularly to see how some of the newcomers play with and without Nash), the bench had not gotten a whole lot of burn together as a unit before Tuesday night’s win over the Golden State Warriors.
The group struggled a bit in the first half, with the game getting a little out of control on both sides as the Suns missed shots they should be hitting.
But in the second half, the Suns’ bench made it feel like last year again by opening the fourth quarter on a 16-8 spurt to increase a four-point lead to 12 and allow the starters to cruise to the finish.
“It was good to play with the second unit a lot today,” Dudley said Tuesday night. “I thought the second half was a lot better than the first half, got steals, actually made some shots, and with that it brings success.”
Despite the strong finish, it would be hard to expect this bench unit to just come together over night. Childress and Warrick couldn’t be more different than Barbosa and Amundson, so there will certainly be an adjustment period.
With Childress, the defense is much improved, but you lose that guy in LB who can create offense for himself so effortlessly. Warrick gives the Suns much more of an offensive threat than Amundson, but he’s not the same rebounder and shot blocker.
“I think we still have a little bit of work to do, and it’s not easy to just throw everybody together and all of a sudden everyone is playing well,” Childress said. “With two new guys in that second unit just figuring out rotations and movement and tendencies is something that obviously we’re still trying to get to, but it’s been fun and it’s been a great learning experience so far.”
Added Frye, “I love the second unit. I love the athleticism, I love the speed. I think for us we just have to be more active and really just kind of just get that trust. Last year it was just me that came in. This year it’s like Josh, Hakim, Hedo, you know JD changed his game up a little bit. So that dynamic’s just changed up a little bit.”
To Dudley, defense once again must be the calling card of this unit. Frye values the speed, athleticism and unselfishness.
It’s a unit that could be the most talented in the league, but before we start anointing them the best bench in the NBA we have to see how the pieces fit in the regular season.
Mike D’Antoni would only play eight guys when forced, and Alvin Gentry is now trying to make 10 work for a second year in a row. Last year was a perfect situation in that everybody was pleased with their role, but it’s inevitable that some of the Suns won’t get as many minutes as they should this year.
Still, adding Childress’ athleticism and slashing and Warrick’s scoring ability to the core of last year’s bench gives Phoenix all the pieces to what could be the league’s best bench if they mesh once again.
“I think we’ll be very good,” Childress said. “Obviously on paper it looks good, but actually when we’re playing it looks good as well. I’m excited. It’s a good group of guys, a talented group of guys, a hardworking group of guys, and you have those three things mixed together there could be trouble.”