When Eric Bledsoe was sidelined with a meniscus tear there was some concern that the Orange Express may have been derailed. The Suns have repudiated those doubts in line with what has become a signature trend this season.
I know what you're thinking. Actually I don't. You might be thinking of something absolutely terrifying for all I know. But what I was leading into was that I've missed my periodical postings of this the last two Sundays. Now I'm sure some of you are thinking, "Oh, he does this on Sundays?"
Well, I'm supposed to. Unfortunately, I've been (insert obligatory excuse here) and have missed some time.
Bledsoe has also missed some time this season. 23 games so far. When the Suns take the court against the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday, seeking vindication for a loss on January 7th, he will have missed exactly one half of the team's games his season. The team has notched an impressive mark of 16-8 with Bledsoe suiting up, including 2-1 in games without Goran Dragic.
But after some initial growing pains the Suns are proving that they can still hold their own without the dynamic presence that Eric brings to the floor.
When Bledsoe was out with a shin injury from 11/15 - 11/29 the Suns played at a .500 clip (3-3). Included in that six game span was the savage beating they doled out to the Portland Trail Blazers (120-106).
Bledsoe went down again on 12/30, this time with a more deleterious right knee meniscus tear. When the Suns kicked off 2014 by mucking along to a 2-5 record, while playing insipid ball, it was worrisome. The apparent regression now appears to have merely been a recalibration, however, and the Orange Express is back to running on all cylinders.
A due amount of credit goes to team leader and catalyst Goran Dragic. Goran is the engine that makes this team go.
In the 17 games since Bledsoe went down Goran has averaged 22.5 points and 6.4 assists per game. Maybe even more ridiculous is that Dragic has shot .532 from the field and .462 from three point range. Dude is sizzling. Dragon fire.
What is astounding is that this parching play may very well be what we will become accustomed to for the rest of the season. Goran's career arc shows that he plays better in the second half of seasons than the first.
Dragic's true shooting percentage has risen to .604 on the season, good for 13th in the league and just .002 out of cracking the top 10. Among players averaging at least 20 points a game only LeBron James and Kevin Durant have a higher true shooting percentage. And that's right, last night Goran cracked the 20 points per game mark. These offensive pyrotechnics slate Goran at 6th in the league in offensive win shares. He is ninth in the league in WS/48.
Not only does Goran deserve to be an All-Star, he should make an All-NBA team if he maintains a level near his current torrid pace. He is that good.
And the Suns' play is mirroring their leader's. They have now pushed their record to 10-7 while Beldsoe recovers from his torn meniscus. That includes winning eight of their last ten after the troubling 2-5 start. They have a current five game win streak, matching their highest on the season.
These wins haven't been the byproduct of a weak patch in their schedule, either. They have beaten the Indiana Pacers twice. They swept a four game road trip, something only the Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs have also accomplished. Their last seven wins have come by at least seven points. Their last two losses during a 7-2 stretch have been by just six and three.
The team is once again playing at the high level they achieved during the interregnum between Eric's injuries. But this present juncture has them filling it up on offense at a season best rate. The Suns have scored 120 or more points in four of their last ten games. They have only topped 120 once this season with Bledsoe in the lineup. Phoenix is averaging 112 points per game over their last ten outings.
Remember when Jeff Hornacek told me he thought the team could score 103 points per game and the national media scoffed? Well, damn the scoffers and their scoffing... The Suns are averaging a league sixth best 104.9 points per game.
This hasn't been a one man job by Dragic, though. The aforementioned coach (of the year) Hornaeck has left an indelible stamp on this team. He has been a coaching prodigy this season. Green and Plumlee continue to be a case example of grand larceny. Leandro Barbosa has proved there are free lunches.
And the Morrii have been playing like men off the bench. The Suns have self-tilted their reserve unit as the "Bench Mob", which is actually a common name between this current incarnation of Phoenix basketball and the last one that took the court without making my eyes want to go sit in the corner.
Unfortunately, the Lakers have also taken to the fancy of calling their second unit the "B*&ch Mob" (not sure what happened to the other letters there), and have done so for the totality of the time Phoenix has done the same . Don't believe me? Check it out. I don't lie, but the ball absolutely does sometimes. Actually, I do all the time too. It's shameless...
Yes, back when the Fantastic Five were closing out fourth quarters during the Suns' Sleeping Beauty (screw Cinderella) run in the 2009-10 season the Land of 1,000 Lakes bench had the same damn name.
Now some things are just kind of weird (like kissing your sister), but others are slimy and disgusting (like kissing your sister). "Bench Mob" has now entered the latter part of that spectrum. Also, I'm not sure why that sister reference keeps popping up.
But... the guys subbing in from the purple pine have stepped up big. Another potential downfall for the team when Bledsoe went down was a lack of quality depth to absorb his minutes. Downfall averted.
Markieff Morris, specifically, has averaged 17.7 points over the last ten games while providing consistent production by topping double digits in each contest. His offense has come at an efficient .522 from the field and .847 from the free throw line. His career, which appeared to be in tremulant standing, is on solid footing.
And so are the Suns. Poised to wreak havoc on a parlous stretch that includes games against the Houston Rockets, Golden St. Warriors and Miami Heat headed into the All-Star break. And they will be prepared, Bledsoe or no Bledsoe.
The way the team has played has kept them right in the thick of things in the Western Conference playoff picture. It has mollified the urgency of Bledsoe's return to the lineup. He doesn't need to ride in on a white horse. The Suns are already riding on the back of a fire-breathing dragon. Instead, Eric can focus on making sure his body is completely right.
So don't worry Eric, they've got this. This is how the new Suns roll.