Jeff Hornacek has developed a winning bench

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Going into the season, there were many unknowns about the Phoenix Suns. Most experts expected them to contend for a top-5 pick in the NBA Draft as they struggled with a team full of young players. Instead, the Suns raced out to a 19-11 start and were challenging for a top-5 seed in the Western Conference until Eric Bledsoe went down with an injury.

As the midway point of the season approaches, the Suns are 23-17 and still in contention for a playoff spot, something no one predicted in October. Few, if any, guess that’d be the case. Something else people may not have predicted was how quickly the chemistry of the team, and specifically the bench, would gel.

With Bledsoe out, the second unit has kept the Suns afloat.

“They play together and everyone enjoys the game,” Goran Dragic said of the second unit. “A reason we are so successful is the first unit and bench play well, and we need them in this league on back to backs and playoffs.

“They play team basketball, and everyone is happy on the floor and this is important.”

The bench has been among the strongest in the league this season by averaging 36.9 points per game, which is good for fifth in the league. It currently has four players — Gerald Green, the Morris twins and Leandro Barbosa — averaging more than 10 points per game, though Green has started the past 10 games for Eric Bledsoe and Barbosa has only played in five games.

Markieff Morris won the NBA Player of the Week award in November and remains the only NBA player that has won it while coming off the bench so far this year.

Coach Jeff Hornacek’s confidence in the group has grown throughout the season, and it showed on Sunday night against the Denver Nuggets, when he went with his bench in the fourth quarter to close out a 117-103 victory.

“They were big,” Hornacek said. “There are times we will need our starters to play big minutes and we had a tough schedule recently.

“March will be an even bigger emphasis on having those guys play well to give those guys big minutes. You can’t play 82 games with just five guys.”

Hornacek is a player’s coach.

The other day after practice, he spent over half an hour drilling Archie Goodwin and Dionte Christmas before then participating in a half-court shooting contest. The head coach taking the time with the two third-string guards perhaps exemplifies why the bench unit has played with a “next-man-up” mentality this year — and has done well doing so.

“We are family and every player is a part of the family,” Dragic said.

Also credit Hornacek with development of point guard Ish Smith, who has only played in more than 10 minutes of a game on 19 occasions through the team’s first 40. Since Bledsoe went down, Smith has turned into a change-up type of point guard who has put pressure on opposing defenses.

“Ish is doing a great job of pushing the ball and getting other guys shots,” Markieff Morris said.

Just as importantly, Smith has added personality to the team and has improved upon the lacking chemistry from last season. Called “Worst” by some of his teammates — apparently he has the worst behavior on the team — Smith says the bench unit has simply related well with one another.

“It really is how we are all around the same age, we understand each other,” Smith said. “When we are serious we are serious, but we also know how to joke around a little bit.”

Off the court, shopping outings have become a main source of entertainment for the team. Both Smith and Goodwin name P.J. Tucker as the biggest shopper of the team, and Goodwin calls Tucker’s wardrobe of studded leather, sleeve-less hoodies and too many shoes to count, “extravagant.”

The team loves to joke around off the court, but it is the way they help each other on the court that is the most impressive. It can be very easy for a player like Smith to shut-out the younger Goodwin as they compete for minutes. But it has not stood in the way of them helping each other get better.

Almost daily, a group of Green, Goodwin, Smith and Christmas will stay late to play games of 2-on-2 or get up shooting drills.

“It’s working every day,” Smith said. “It’s a long season, and you have to continue to get better.”

The Suns’ bench unit hasn’t been this tight-knit since the 2009-2010 season, when the Suns were two wins away from making the NBA Finals. That year, a strong 10-man rotation that included Dragic and Barbosa contributed to a deep postseason run. While there are similarities between that bench mob and this year’s to-be-named group, there is still a ways to go for the 2013-14 version to match the 2010 second unit.

“We were the number one scoring bench that year,” Dragic said. “It’s tough to compare them.

“They are a lot more younger and I’m excited with our future.”

Barbosa is back to add an offensive punch, and rookie Alex Len appears ready to solidify his place with the second group as a defensive presence it’s lacked so far. As for a group nickname, that has yet to come, but the Suns may be close to coming up with one.

“We’re going to get it from Sosa, Barbosa, he’s going to come up with it,” Morris said.

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Tags: Goran Dragic Ish Smith Jeff Hornacek Markieff Morris Phoenix Suns

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