PHOENIX – Like a teenage boy with a cracking voice and wispy hair appearing on his chin, the Phoenix Suns went through an awkward growth period during the first quarter of the 2013-14 season. Injuries to the team’s two best players, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, kept the Suns from gaining cohesion, but recently they’ve been growing up, learning how to become confident with themselves and each other.
Then, Sunday happened.
Phoenix dropped a injury-riddled but battle-tested Golden State Warriors team 106-102 by keeping the turnovers down early and then using gritty defensive stops in the final seconds to hang on.
Like a teen turned adult, you see the change in the body language.
On Sunday, you saw Dragic drill a corner three in the third quarter before squawking back at the Warriors bench as Phoenix went ahead 74-65.
“I don’t remember what I said,” Dragic sheepishly claimed, promising it was PC and triggered by a lot of chatter from Golden State’s bench. “I just yelled, I think.”
Then, with the Suns leading 102-100 and a shotclock’s worth of time left in the game, P.J. Tucker more than willingly switched with Bledsoe to guard Stephen Curry. He forced a missed shot that left Curry on the deck.
“He has so many moves and so many ways to get his shot off, that you just want to be solid and stay down and don’t go for the pump-fake,” Tucker said.
“I want that last-second defense,” he added. “I called the switch on that so quick … I live for those moments, for sure.”
Minutes later, you saw the usually stone-faced Bledsoe embracing center Miles Plumlee when, inserted for just a defensive play and Phoenix leading 104-100, the second-year center altered a Klay Thompson layup attempt. Coach Jeff Hornacek swore Plumlee got a piece of the ball, but the center finished the night with three blocks instead of four.
“They made their run,” Hornacek said of the Warriors, “but then we made two big defensive stops. So defense is what ends up winning the game for us.”
Phoenix’s players are smiling, and they have good reason. That’s five wins in a row, the first time that’s happened in the Valley since January of 2011. Back in April, the locker room was a silent and barren wasteland of a random roster with no reason to look toward tomorrow.
Now, the Suns are showing signs that they’re not only for real but have untapped chemistry to build upon. And the signs are there that they’re just now realizing it.
They’re embracing the challenges of taking on the Dubs backcourt dubbed the best shooting team in NBA history by their own head coach. They’re beginning to realize what happens when they turn the ball over just 12 times and hold the opponent to 36.8 percent shooting in the final quarter.
“I think now we’re starting to see the potential of the team, how we can play,” Tucker said. “We’re starting to really gel together and come together as a team, especially at the end of games.”
Added Dragic, who scored 20 points in the first three quarters then watched Bledsoe make the big plays in the fourth: “All my teammates, we feel strong as a team. You can see our confidence is up. We don’t panic much.”
Sans the addition of Bledsoe, the current roster hardly has a better resume than last year’s, but it does have a balanced identity on both ends of the court. It’s also building confidence in its many characters.
Back in the depths of U.S. Airways Center, you saw Archie Goodwin fixing Dragic’s collar to tidy his teammate up for the TV cameras. The rookie has only played eight total minutes in the last two games but has been the most boisterous player in the very boisterous locker room of late.
For the first time since their 2010 Western Conference Finals appearance, the Suns are five games above .500 thanks to a five-game winning streak.
“I get back home, I’m smiling, I’m having a good time with my kid, my wife,” Dragic said. “The next day, I can’t wait to get to practice and play basketball with those guys.
“We don’t want to stop here and only win 14.”