While being very different players, Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee bring unique skills to the center position that opponents have a hard time defending.

With Eric Bledsoe reportedly returning to practice in the next 1-2 weeks, barring setbacks, it appears the Suns will be healthy again before they hit their toughest stretch of the season.

The Suns play 14 of their last 21 on the road, including 9 of their last 14, while fighting for playoff position and not only trying to avoid missing the big dance altogether but also to avoid having to face the Thunder in the first round. A 15-13 record in the next 28 games gets them 48 wins and a likely 6th or 7th seed.

Can the Suns win down the stretch? And once in the playoffs, can they win in the playoffs?

The metrics say yes.

And a close look at the metrics shows that two of the most important players on the Suns are Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee. They play together in the starting lineup, but they also share the center position for much of the game as they rotate in and out of the game for rest.

Net differential on efficiency

The Phoenix Suns, as a team, have a +3.8 net differential on offensive efficiency vs. defensive efficiency, good for 8th in the league. But some of their lineups offer a much bigger bang for their buck.

The Suns have five lineups in the top-100 of the NBA:

  • The lineup of Channing Frye - Markieff Morris - P.J. Tucker - Gerald Green - Goran Dragic (89 minutes) has the 17th-best net differential in the league at +20.4 with an offensive rating of 120.2 vs. defense of 99.8 (points per 100 possessions). Their assist-% is 61.3%, much higher than a usual Suns lineup.
  • The second-best differential swaps Tucker for Marcus Morris with the same four guys (70 minutes), with a net +11.4.
  • After that, it's the long-awaited starting lineup of Eric Bledsoe-Dragic-Frye-Plumlee-Tucker with a +10.0 net rating (247 minutes).
  • The 2014 starting lineup, since Bledsoe's injury, has been pretty good too: Dragic-Frye-Green-Tucker-Plumlee is a +6.0 (460 minutes)
  • The best backup lineup features Leandro Barbosa - Alex Len - Morris - Morris - Ish Smith with a +5.4 net rating (58 minutes).

Each one of these lineups is a winner, but the season is so long you can't just play those lineups and nothing else.

"As you got through the season you'd love to say you can get back down to an 8-man rotation," Hornacek says. "But if you look at our schedule in March we would be wearing guys out if we do that."

The Suns will continue to to play a 9 or 10-man rotation, especially as Eric Bledsoe rounds back into form. Ish Smith has earned minutes for the rest of the season, and Leandro Barbosa is a great sub for scoring off the bench.

Come playoff time, the Suns have the stats to show which lineups work the best. They involve basically four combinations of eight guys, with a sprinkle of a good backup team featuring Barbosa, Len and Ish Smith.

There's your primary playoff rotation: Bledsoe, Dragic, Tucker, Frye and Plumlee to start, plus Morris, Morris and Green off the bench.

Five of the top 100 5-man lineups in the NBA. The Suns won't set the world on fire when push comes to shove, but they will be competitive each and every game.

Channing Frye is a big plus

Drilling down further, Channing Frye is the only player on the Suns in five of the top seven 3-man combinations on the team. Frye is also in four of the top six 2-man combinations on the team.

"There are a lot of times I like to go with Markieff and Channing," Hornacek said. "Depending on what's going on out there. It gives us a little different look with Channing at the 5. If they have a big [center] out there, we can get Channing some looks."

It's all about spacing. Playing Frye at the center position forces the other team's biggest player to set up away from the paint and defend a three-point shooter - something those big guys are not built to do. In response, opposing coaches have to pick their poison - play a zone which allows their big to stay under the basket, bench their biggest guy, or put him on Markieff Morris who is too quick for him. Any of those options is unfamiliar to the opponent, creating chaos and running opportunities.

"They especially spread your bigs," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said this week. "They have multiple times in the game where they will go with Markieff or Marcus and Channing together at the 4/5, and now you've got two guys that shoot behind the three that big guys aren't used to getting out to. It really puts you in a tough spot."

Indiana switched other players onto Frye, but then were messed up and their top-ranked defense was run over by the Suns.

But playing Frye at the five for long minutes only works when there's a big lineup employed by the other team. The Wizards simply assigned Trevor Ariza to Frye's hip and let the game become a 4-on-4 when the Suns were on offense. The Suns didn't respond well, and lost the game.

Miles better

Plumlee will remain in the rotation because he provides rim defense that most of the team lacks, and the Suns will need that when the games slog down.

Plumlee was better with the Dragic-Bledsoe backcourt because he didn't have to be an offensive weapon. He could defend the rim and flash to the basket for dunks.

Opposing coaches give Plumlee respect, so should Suns fans.

"They play nine people in their rotation (sometimes ten with Len)," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said this week. "Out of those nine, seven shoot it great and the other two are dynamite to the rim. The two that I'm talking about are [Miles] Plumlee and Ish Smith. The rest of them are very capable of going for big nights behind the arc."

But it's not all about shooting threes.

"What makes it really go, in my opinion," Stevens said. "Are those threats at the rim. So you've Dragic who can get in the paint, Ish Smith can get in the paint, Barbosa's been a great addition.

"And then Plumlee, obviously, every time he rolls you'd better think about him rolling. Otherwise it ends in a dunk. I've coached against him before in college twice, and that was the case when they played at Duke as well. Every time he rolls, that opens up lanes for the shooters."

The Suns have the firepower to play well against most teams and most lineups. Like most every other NBA team, the Suns will struggle against the likes of Oklahoma City and Miami.

But against the rest of the current West playoff seeds? The Suns have beaten all of them. Every single one. San Antonio. Los Angeles Clippers (in LA). Houston (in Houston). Golden State. Portland. Dallas.

No one is going to see the Suns as an easy out in the playoffs. In fact, many teams might dread that possibility.

And they should.

PHOENIX — The Suns didn’t play too poorly during a hectic first 12 minutes against the San Antonio Spurs, but they still looked unsteady and trailed 23-19 after the first quarter. Phoenix...

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PHOENIX – A lackluster first two games out of the All-Star break might have caused worry for the Phoenix Suns. The week off may have taken away their edge, and it could have drowned the momentum that...

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The San Antonio Spurs will trash the video of this game faster than they can leave the Suns arena. The game was a total blowout for the Suns, to the point that coach Popovich waived the white flag at the 5:39 mark of the third quarter with the Suns holding a 22-point lead.

For the first time since the last milennium (1999), the Phoenix Suns beat the San Antonio Spurs by 20+ points, 106-85.

This was a Suns fan dream at US Airways Center. The Suns started slow but jumped out to a 15-point second quarter lead on the back of Ish Smith, and then a 22-point third quarter lead on the back of Gerald Green.

It's a good night when your best player can be a decoy, as Goran Dragic was on this night. Dragic was a +29 in his minutes, but had only 8 points, 5 assists and 4 turnovers in 28 minutes of play.

The Suns really pulled away in the second quarter with a 19-2 run saw them turn a 19-23 deficit into a 38-25 lead before San Antonio could stem the bleeding. That stemming was performed by none other than Manu Ginobili, who drew two offensive charge calls and made a couple of free throws at that point.

Ish Smith owned that second quarter though: 10 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks in that quarter alone.

"I'm like Ricky Bobby. I just wanna go fast." -- Ish Smith

It was the Suns night, folks!

Enjoy these. The Suns are now 33-21.

"They're a really fine team." -- Popovich, on the Suns after getting blown out

Don't go overboard, coach

---

The Spurs came out very cold, with two backcourt violations in the first five minutes of play. Once Channing Frye hit an open three, Spurs coach Popovich had seen enough and called a quick timeout. He replaced starter Corey Joseph with sparkplug Patty Mills to run the point. And Manu Ginobili to help the Spurs go small with Belinelli at the 3.

The Spurs weren't playing very crisp in this game. No surprise given it's their 9th straight road game. But they stayed close while the Suns missed free throws (4 misses) and field goal attempts (13 misses) by the bunch.

End of one: Spurs 23-19.

The Suns second unit, along with Dragic, came out with more fire and aggression. Dragic and Ish played the guard positions, with the Morrii and Channing Frye. This lineup is quick and scrappy, creating the kind of balance that the Suns get with Bledsoe and Dragic out there (remember those days?).

The Suns quickly took a 38-25 lead on a 19-2 run with everyone contributing in a big way while the Spurs went cold.

Finally for the Spurs, the Suns missed an open three and Tim Duncan made a nice move for a and-one to stop the bleeding.

Then Manu Ginobili happened, drawing two offensive fouls on Suns drives to the basket that were so egregious Ginobili will almost certainly be fined. But his tactics worked - the Suns were driven off their rhythm and the Spurs were able to stop the Suns runaway.

At the half, the Suns still led by 12 (47-35) but the Spurs were able to stop the run.

Big time player for that 28-12 second quarter?

Check out this stat line for Ish Smith: 10 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2, steals and 2 blocks. IN THE SECOND QUARTER.

The third quarter showed that the Spurs weren't really dialed into this game. The built the lead to 22 in the first 6.5 minutes while the Spurs clanked jumper after jumper.

Popovich put in four reserves with Danny Green at that point - only halfway through the third - to try to get some energy out there. It only halfway worked.

Hornacek talked on Wednesday night about the Suns needing to develop a killer instinct, to keep building on leads, turning 8 points into 10 then 12 or 13. Twice against the Celtics, the Suns got lazy on defense and allowed an 8-point lead to drop to 4 instead of pushing it bigger.

Tonight, the Suns kept pushing until it was 22 point lead halfway through the third, to the point Popovich put in the deep, deep reserves. The presence of backups must have made the Suns take the foot off the pedal, as they lost focus and began to allow the lead to drop to 17.

Ish Smith came back to get spark back into the team, but the Suns went soft on defense and allowed the Spurs to get offensive rebounds and make open jumpers.

And Archie Goodwin came in, primarily because Leandro Barbosa was out of the lineup but who cares right?

This has to be the kind of game a coach loves. Dragic has been a decoy all night while Ish Smith has run the team to a huge lead over the Spurs.

The fourth quarter was all about trying to one-up each other at times, like when Aaron Baynes one-hand dunked over Markieff Morris and then Marcus returned the favor on Baynes two minutes later. BOOM.

But really my favorite part of the 4th quarter was Archie Goodwin. We hadn't seen him in a game in two months, since Leandro Barbosa was signed after Archie had lost his confidence/way.

Tonight we saw Archie's entire game: drive/finish, putback dunk, tight defense, bigtime block...and airballed wide open three. That kid still has a lot to learn, but he's a good one folks. A real good one.

Archie and Ish were joined by Alex Len, Slava Kravtsov and Dionte Christmas for the last 3 minutes of the game.

Time: 7 p.m. MST TV: FSA A late February home affair might not qualify as a measuring stick game for the Phoenix Suns anymore than the previous 53 they’ve played in have. Nonetheless, despite...

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