Phoenix Suns Usurp Denver Nuggets' Role as West Team Too Deep to Overlook

Ben LeibowitzCorrespondent IIIDecember 21, 2013

Dec 20, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Goran Dragic (1)  shoots the ball against Denver Nuggets guard Ty Lawson (3) during the second half at Pepsi Center.  The Suns won 103-99.   Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns overcame a 21-point deficit to defeat the Denver Nuggets on the road, 103-99, Friday. In the process, the upstart roster has essentially usurped Denver’s role in the Western Conference as the team too deep to overlook.

As Suns broadcaster Tom Leander quipped during the postgame show, Phoenix appeared to be suffering from altitude sickness throughout the first half. They fell behind by as many as 21, allowed 62 first-half points and were down by 14 points at halftime.

Nevertheless, the Suns—as they have all season long—kept scratching and clawing to find a way to win.

Gerald Green ignited the second-half comeback by lighting up the Nuggets from beyond the arc. He drained four three-pointers in the third quarter alone and a career-high six overall en route to 19 points. He added eight rebounds and two assists.

Meanwhile, backup point guard Ish Smith provided a huge spark in limited minutes. After six consecutive DNPCDs (did not play: coaching decision), Smith made the most of his opportunity when head coach Jeff Hornacek called his name in the third quarter.

In just seven minutes of action, the 25-year-old grabbed three rebounds, dished out three assists and made his only shot attempt—a contorted layup that forced a Denver timeout.

“Got a big lift from Ish Smith,” Hornacek said during a postgame interview on Fox Sports Arizona.

Ish Smith's playing time has been sporadic this season, but he's always stayed ready.
Ish Smith's playing time has been sporadic this season, but he's always stayed ready.Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Because Coach Hornacek has so many weapons at his disposal, a different name can make the difference on any given night. Even when this Suns team looks completely out of a game, their depth, team chemistry and grit keep them competitive. Having youth and athletic ability doesn’t hurt, either.

Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Channing Frye and Gerald Green have all been high-scorers in a game this season. Markieff led the Suns in scoring Friday night with 25 points.

That’s exactly the type of depth the Nuggets had a season ago when they won 57 games under head coach George Karl. Eight different players averaged at least nine points per game for that team.

Not surprisingly, the 2013-14 Suns also have eight different players averaging at least nine points per game. Of those eight, seven are posting career highs in scoring: Bledsoe, Dragic, Morris, Morris, Green, Miles Plumlee and P.J. Tucker.

Hornacek has embraced the two-headed point guard monster to run an uptempo style that involves everyone in the offense. As a result, the Suns are contending for a playoff spot after nearly two months of NBA action.

Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe each have a player efficiency rating over 20.
Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe each have a player efficiency rating over 20.Bart Young/Getty Images

It’s truly remarkable what the Suns have been able to accomplish this season when many pundits (including myself) believed they’d struggle to climb out of the Western Conference basement.

At 15-10, the Suns hold claim to the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference. Their record is better than the Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors (among others).

The Suns aren’t going to vie for a championship in 2014, but they are serious contenders for a postseason berth.

And although the Suns’ chances of landing Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins in the 2014 NBA draft are falling by the win, fans are getting to see a competitive team with skilled players who genuinely enjoy playing together.

Will the Suns win 57 games like the Nuggets did a year ago? Probably not.

With that said, depth and athleticism continues to translate into wins.

As Zach Lowe of Grantland wrote in a recent column, the Suns are “the best story in the league.”

Given how they’re playing, it’s hard to disagree.