- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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DALLAS -- The Phoenix Suns’ rise is one of the remarkable stories in the NBA this season.
Coming off a 25-win season, the Suns were considered by many to be among the tanking teams this season, having traded starting center Marcin Gortat for injured Emeka Okafor and a future first-round pick in late October.
It’s hard to believe those same Suns are fighting for a playoff spot in the final week of the regular season.
But, much to the surprise of most NBA observers, Phoenix never faded. Rookie coach Jeff Hornacek’s team, which is 47-31 entering its back-to-back in San Antonio and Dallas, has proven it’s for real.
“They remind me a lot of my first Detroit team back in ’01-02,” said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, who was named Coach of the Year after the Pistons won 50 games that season. “It was a team coming off a 32-win season that people didn’t expect to be .500. There are a lot of similarities [to the Suns]. They have a lot of toughness on their team, they have young guys that have been on some bad teams and they’re tired of getting kicked around so they play with attitude, and they’ve got great guard play.”
Goran Dragic, one of those guards, is doubtful for Friday’s game against the Spurs due to an ankle injury and could be sidelined Saturday against the Mavs, the Arizona Republic reports.
Phoenix survived without Eric Bledsoe, their other explosive starting guard, for several weeks in the middle of the season.
Put them together, and the Suns are a tremendous transition team. Transition defense happens to often be a troublesome issue for the Mavs, as seen in Thursday night’s loss to the Spurs.
“Quite frankly, I think Phoenix is even faster than San Antonio,” Dirk Nowitzki said.
Nowitzki has admitted that he doubted Phoenix for much of the season, figuring the Suns would cool off at some point. But he has developed a lot of respect for a team that has become one of his League Pass favorites because of the Suns’ fast-paced style.
“Hornacek is doing a great job with them,” Nowitzki said. “He gives them a lot of freedom. I think Dragic should have been an All-Star. He’s played phenomenal [all] year. Dragic and Bledsoe are always pushing the pace. They’ve got a lot of athletes out there, got some scorers, shooters. The [Morris] twins off the bench are great. Gerald Green, if he’s hot, he can score with the best of them in this league. They’ve got a lot of guys who can make plays.”
Shawn Marion, a star on the Seven Seconds or Less-era Suns, also sees a fun Phoenix team that is a handful for any defense.
“They found a unique way to attack teams,” Marion said. “They’ve got Dragic and Bledsoe in the backcourt, and they do a great job of forcing the tempo and they also can score the ball as well. They put pressure on the 1 and 2 spots and at 3 they’ve got a guy who’s kind of tough and spunky in [P.J.] Tucker, then they’ve got [Channing] Frye who can space the floor. They’ve got a lot of guys who can come in and shoot the ball well. Green has been playing uncontrollably this year. He’s coming in and just getting it going. He’s an athletic freak.
“They move the ball well, they force the tempo of the game and they shoot the ball outside well. When you’re able to shoot the ball from 1 to 4 and you’ve got an athletic big that can roll and dunk and stuff, it opens things up. It speeds the game up a lot for you because a lot of teams can’t match up with that.”
It also apparently speeds up a rebuilding process for a team flush with cap space and future first-round picks.