The Phoenix Suns have been like an eight-minute miler who stayed with the elite pack in a marathon through Mile 18. They're fading a bit now, needing a late push to cross the finish line among the top runners.
Either way, it's been quite the rush for a franchise that appeared to be sucking wind in October.
The Suns traded center Marcin Gortat for an injured replacement and a draft pick five days before their opener, leading to speculation they had essentially given up on the season to focus on restocking their roster.
Who could have known the team already had enough talent to contend for the playoffs in the exceedingly deep Western Conference?
Phoenix (37-28) started 19-11, largely withstood a serious knee injury to point guard Eric Bledsoe that forced him to sit out 33 games and, through Friday sat only one game behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the final playoff spot with a month left in the regular season.
"If I'm honest," point guard Goran Dragic said, "I didn't expect this, especially when you have a lot of changes in the franchise with a new coach, a new GM, a lot of new players, a lot of young teammates."
Orchestrating it all have been two precocious rookies: General Manager Ryan McDonough and Coach Jeff Hornacek, who have quickly brought order to a romper room of a roster with 12 players in their teens or 20s.
Hornacek installed a high-flying offense reminiscent of his days with Phoenix in the early 1990s. The Suns often play Bledsoe and Dragic together, giving them multiple points of attack on offense.
"Last year, we didn't have this kind of style of game," Dragic said. "We were more of a half-court team, but now when Jeff came back, he told us he wanted to have the old Suns back, like with Kevin Johnson and Jason Kidd and Jeff and those guys and try to push the tempo and score as many points as we can."
They've averaged 105.2 points per game, sixth-best in the NBA and a figure that would undoubtedly be higher had Bledsoe not been sidelined for such a lengthy stretch. Phoenix went 17-16 without Bledsoe, who returned last week.
Seven of the Suns' top eight scorers are averaging a career high in points, with Dragic (20.6 points per game) and Bledsoe (17.8) more than doubling their career averages from before this season.
"They've all stepped up their game, they've all had career years," Hornacek said.
Guard Gerald Green provided a scoring boost in Bledsoe's absence, collecting 41 points in a victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Second-year center Miles Plumlee has shown worthy of his promotion to the starting lineup after a rookie season in which he was largely a nonentity. Twin forwards Markieff and Marcus Morris have been equally valuable coming off the bench.
The entire lineup has thrived under Hornacek, a former All-Star shooting guard who twice went to the Finals with the Utah Jazz. The 50-year-old who could pass for 35 brings a youthful exuberance but also the gravitas of someone respected throughout the NBA.
"He's been there before as a player, so we felt like anything he tells us, it's going to work," Green said. "And that's what we've done this far."
Hornacek said he wants his team to exude the toughness of the Jerry Sloan-coached Utah teams he once played for, though he conceded he's not as hard on his players as Sloan could be on him.
Often he doesn't have to be. Hornacek said he's overheard his players getting on each other in the locker room at halftime when their play hasn't reached what they considered an acceptable level.
"They're yelling at each other sometimes, so as coaches we start to come out of that coaches' office and [say], 'No, let's just stay here for a little bit longer and let them talk to each other,'" Hornacek said. "I think that's what the good teams do."
Phoenix could go from good to great quickly.
The Suns will have as many as four first-round draft picks this summer, depending on whether the Washington Wizards and Minnesota Timberwolves finish high enough in the standings to give up a pair of protected picks.
They'll also probably lock up Bledsoe for the foreseeable future because they can match any offer made to the restricted free agent.
In the meantime, they'll continue to try to defy expectations, something that happened quickly for a team that was projected to win 19 games by several Las Vegas sports books.
"Oh, man. It exceeded them when we won 17 games," Bledsoe said. "Everybody had us winning that or probably a little bit more and everybody came in with a chip on their shoulder, and I think we've been doing great for the most part. Everybody still feels like we have something to prove, which we do, so we still have a lot more to accomplish."
At this rate, the finish line of the regular season may not be the end of their run.
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