It's Put Up or Shut Up Time for Phoenix Suns

Ben LeibowitzCorrespondent IIIJanuary 9, 2014

Jan 8, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Gerald Green (14) celebrates with center Alex Len (21) during the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. The Suns defeated the Timberwolves 104-103. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

The Phoenix Suns have played four of 10 straight games against teams with a worse record than their own. They're entering a crucial stretch of the 2013-14 season, so it's put up or shut up time for the upstart roster.

Phoenix was able to pull out a thrilling 104-103 road victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday, thanks to the heroics of Gerald Green.

The 27-year-old started in place of the injured Eric Bledsoe. He notched 14 points and hit the game-winning jumper with 3.9 seconds left in the game, which capped a 7-0 Suns run for the comeback.

While the Suns wouldn't have won the game without Green's cold-blooded dagger, the interior defense provided by Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee can't be understated.

At halftime, superstar power forward Kevin Love was just 2-of-12 from the field with six points. Frye frustrated him, forced him to take (and miss) tough shots and essentially negated his presence in the first half.

By the end of the game, Love finished just 4-of-20 from the field for 15 points. He only made 1-of-5 attempts from three-point range.

Nikola Pekovic, meanwhile, couldn't get anything going early on. The 28-year-old big man entered the night averaging 23 points per game in his previous three contests, but he was effectively shut down by Plumlee inside.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JANUARY 8: Nikola Pekovic #14 of the Minnesota Timberwolves drives against the Phoenix Suns on January 8, 2014 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or u
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At the end of two quarters of play, Pekovic had notched just two points on 1-of-8 shooting from the field. Much like Love, his usual production had been shut down through the first half. He did finish with 17 points, but he shot just 6-of-16 from the field (37.5 percent).

The Suns starting big men are breaking down the stereotype that this squad merely runs and shoots threes. When it comes right down to it, the Suns can play hard-nosed basketball with those two guys anchoring the defense.

With the win, Phoenix improved to 2-2 during the 10-game stretch against opponents with inferior records. The Suns have lost to the Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Bulls and beaten the Milwaukee Bucks and T-Wolves over that span.

If the Suns intend to make the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference, however, they'll have to play better against teams that are below them in the standings.

The most critical part of the upcoming schedule is that Bledsoe will be sidelined for "at least a week" due to a right knee sprain he suffered against the Los Angeles Clippers, according to Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 30: Eric Bledsoe #2 of the Phoenix Suns handles the basketball against Jared Dudley #9 of the Los Angeles Clippers at STAPLES Center on December 30, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
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In 10 games without the 24-year-old guard, the Suns have compiled a 5-5 record. In other words, they're a mediocre team without him in the lineup.

Goran Dragic has played All-Star-caliber basketball in Bledsoe's recent four-game absence, averaging 23.8 points, six assists and 3.3 rebounds per game—but he needs teammates to step up.

In the loss to Memphis, only three other Suns players scored double-digit points—with 14 points being the high. In the loss to Chicago, Dragic scored 21 points while the team shot just 40.2 percent overall.

If Phoenix hopes to come out of this 10-game stretch unscathed, it will need contributions from all over the roster. It got that on Wednesday with a 22-point outburst from Frye. Even Leandro Barbosa—who signed a 10-day contract with the Suns—chipped in with three points, three rebounds and three assists.

There's a chance that the Brazilian Blur's presence can help override Bledsoe's injury.

PHOENIX - MAY 29:  Goran Dragic #2 listens to teammate Leandro Barbosa #10 of the Phoenix Suns in Game Six of the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers on May 29, 2010 at US Airways Center in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Lakers won 111-103.
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According to Craig Grialou of, Dragic was excited to have his former teammate added to the fold. He said, "LB is my guy. I played with him (for) two years. I came here as a rookie (in 2008) and he helped me a lot. I'm really happy that he signed with us. I can't wait to see him."

The Suns will move forward to face the Grizzlies, Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks (on the road) and the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks and Denver Nuggets (at home). Even if it's in nail-biting fashion, they'll have to find a way to win the majority of those games.

At 21-13, Phoenix holds the No. 7 seed in the West. The Suns are two games ahead of the eighth-place Mavs and four games ahead of the ninth-place Nuggets.

If Jeff Hornacek's crew can find a rhythm without Bledsoe and take advantage of a relatively weak upcoming schedule, they'll put themselves in perfect position to nab a playoff seed at season's end.

The Suns have an opportunity to silence the doubters. To do so, they'll just have to go out and perform.