Bucks vs. Suns Preview: Surprising Phoenix looks to restart winning streak against Bucks without Eric Bledsoe

Christian Petersen

The Suns had dominated the Bucks for years before Milwaukee earned a rare win last season. But with Phoenix making great strides this season, could a new streak start tonight?

2013/2014 NBA Season
Pho
(19-12, 11-5 home)
vs.
Mil_medium
(7-25, 4-13 away)
January 4, 2014
U.S. Airways Center | Phoenix, AZ
8:00 CT
FS Wisconsin | 620 WTMJ
Probable Starters
Goran Dragic PG Luke Ridnour
Gerald Green SG Brandon Knight
P.J. Tucker SF Giannis Antetokounmpo
Channing Frye PF Ersan Ilyasova
Miles Plumlee C Larry Sanders
2013/14 Advanced Stats
95.6 (7th) Pace 91.5 (26th)
107.7 (10th) ORtg 98.9 (30th)
104.8 (14th) DRtg 107.0 (20th)

On the Suns: Bright Side of the Sun | Valley of the Suns

Suns Update. By now I'm sure you've heard about the Suns and their expectation-defying season. With a new head coach and new management taking over in the offseason, the Suns were one organization frequently associated with the widespread tanking movement expected this season. In fact, most preseason prognosticators, automated or otherwise, thought the Suns would challenge the Philadelphia 76ers for the NBA's worst record.

So much for that. The Suns currently sit seven games above .500, which is of course good enough for just the seventh seed in the murderous Western Conference. The pairing of rising star Eric Bledsoe with perennially-underrated Goran Dragic has worked better than anyone could have anticipated, keying the Suns' top-10 offense. But the truly impressive feat for new coach Jeff Hornacek has been whipping the Suns' defense into shape. He's got his young squad playing with energy, sitting just above league-average in defensive efficiency. The top teams in the West remain in a class of their own, but Phoenix's success this season might have the org. fast-tracking their rebuilding process.

Bledsoe Out. For tonight, however, the Suns will be missing half of their dynamic duo, as Eric Bledsoe is expected to miss at least another week with a right knee sprain. Dragic has boosted his already solid production in Bledsoe's absence, but depth at guard looks to be an issue for the Suns: former Buck Ish Smith was the only guard to play significant minutes off the bench in Phoenix's 99-91 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday night. Smith finished 1-6 from the field with two turnovers. Bledsoe's hard-nosed style keys the Suns' defense, and the Suns shot just 26.7% from three in his absence.

Hornacek working wonders. Has there ever been a more clear-cut favorite for Coach of the Year this early in a season than Jeff Hornacek? He's got the young Suns playing fundamentally solid ball that still brings excitement, and most importantly, results. One of the keys, as Matt Moore writes for CBSSports.com, is Hornacek's wealth of basketball experience:

Many coaches run into trouble because they lack some level of the NBA experience. Many didn't play in the league and so they can't really communicate that they understand what happens on the floor or in the locker room. Others were never assistant coaches, leaping into jobs they may not have been ready for. But Hornacek was a tremendous guard for perennial championship contenders, then a part-time shooting coach and eventually an assistant coach in Utah. It's not just his familiarity with the game, it's that he remains calm.

All the experience in the world isn't worth anything if you can't find a way to apply it to the job at hand, though. Hornacek says the key for Phoenix has been a clear, consistent emphasis on always making the right play:

"Early on in training camp, we made it an emphasis that when we saw a guy not make the right pass or the extra pass, we'd stop the play. And we'd explain to the guy, if you just make this play or find this guy, then this or that will happen. And in the beginning it was a little bit of a struggle for some of these guys, but when you do things over and over again, it works. That's probably what makes San Antonio so great, Pop harps on it. The top ten teams in the league all share the ball, they move it quickly."

There's a lot of young talent on the Suns' roster, but by all accounts the team plays well together (especially Bledsoe and Dragic, who boast remarkably similar stat lines) and has great chemistry. Winning most of their games probably goes a long way toward keeping everybody happy, but Hornacek's leadership has undoubtedly put the team in a great position for the future.

Sanders on the rebound. As we go about our daily arduous task of digging for good news about the Bucks, we might be seeing the return of 2012-2013 Larry Sanders. Since returning from his thumb injury four games ago, Sanders has averaged 10.5 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 blocks while shooting 67% from the floor. Yes, it's four games, but it's a bigger sample than the atrocious trio of games to start his season. Sanders says his rim protection still isn't at the level he'd like, but he's definitely trending up.

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