Chemistry propelling Phoenix Suns into Western Conference playoff race

The Suns have recaptured the chemistry that characterized them for so many years. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX — Through 31 games the Phoenix Suns appeared destined for the doldrums of the Western Conference.

At 12-19 there was minimal light at the end of the tunnel and a second consecutive year without a playoff berth seemed imminent.

Fast forward 14 games and the Suns are one of the hottest teams in the NBA. They’re 11-3 during that stretch and only the Bulls have a better record over the course of the last 14 games.

So what’s changed? This team seemed to lack the necessary talent to make any type of legitimate playoff push.

Aside from Steve Nash, Grant Hill and Marcin Gortat, the Suns appeared too undermanned offensively and too inconsistent defensively to surge up the Western Conference totem pole.

How could the Suns possibly be in the heat of the playoff race? How could they possibly be half a game back of the No. 8 seed and only 3 1/2 games out of the No. 4 spot?

One word: chemistry.

“It’s phenomenal. Everybody genuinely likes each other,” said veteran guard Michael Redd. “It’s just been fun, man. It’s a fun atmosphere. Alvin’s the same every day and everybody’s been great. Steve and Grant obviously set the tone so it’s been a great locker room. I’ve been on some great teams as far as guys liking each other. Twelve years, so I’ve seen some bad ones, too, but this is right up there, no question.”

As has been the case for the majority of the Steve Nash era, the Suns are gelling on and off the court. As Redd said, players and coaches genuinely enjoy being around one another. After playing rotation roulette for the first half of the season, everyone finally know their roles and the locker room is upbeat.

They even held a team-wide gathering at Redd’s house the night before Sunday’s game against the Houston Rockets. Is it a coincidence that 10 different players scored at least four points in a thrashing of the Rockets less than 24 hours later? Hardly.

Phoenix has proven in the past that chemistry can overcome limited talent and deficiencies, and that’s exactly what’s happening day in and day out in US Airways Center.

“I just think the chemistry has been much better. Technically we haven’t changed what we’re doing, but just the overall chemistry is better,” Alvin Gentry said before the Rockets game. “The second team has had great chemistry. I think Shannon Brown is starting to play better for us. We’ve gotten good minutes out of Michael Redd. Just the whole overall chemistry of the team I think is better right now.”

Whether it’s Redd’s 25-point outburst against the Rockets, Channing Frye’s 26-point effort against the Jazz or Shannon Brown’s 21-point night against the Clippers, Phoenix is getting contributions from different players every night.

Seven different players have led the Suns in scoring over the course of Phoenix’s last 11 games following the All-Star break, something few other NBA teams can say. That type of balanced scoring on a nightly basis is a direct product of good chemistry.

Players feel comfortable around one another. They’re loose, Gentry gives different guys the minutes to rise to the occasion, and each player feels the support of his teammates as he takes the floor night in and night out. For a team lacking in the talent department, that type of chemistry is invaluable.

“I think staying together is the key, through good times, through bad times and the team has stayed together, off the court most importantly,” Redd said. “We still go out to dinner, we hang out, we support each other.”

Such is the standard of a Nash-led team. A season ago, however, the Suns never had the opportunity to build that chemistry and overcome expectations. Two major midseason trades robbed Phoenix of the chance to gel and grow together as a unit.

The Suns made no such trades this time around, and their patience is being rewarded by way of big wins, and even national recognition from analysts like ESPN’s John Hollinger. That chemistry that was missing a season ago has arrived, and Phoenix Suns victories have followed suit.

“I think people are feeling more comfortable with their roles,” Nash said. “I think we’re more cohesive so chemistry has improved and it’s definitely another reason why we’re playing better.”

If there’s one intangible that can carry the Suns through an upcoming stretch that features 12 road games in 15 contests, it’s chemistry. If there’s anything that can catapult Phoenix over the Heat, Magic or Pacers, it’s chemistry. And with growing confidence from their recent stretch, the Suns are expecting that will be the case.

“Chemistry is just outstanding right now,” said Suns center Marcin Gortat. “Everybody feels good and we’re going to get a couple wins on the road right now.”

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