Phoenix Suns players buying what Jeff Hornacek brings to court
BY PAUL CORO, AZCENTRAL.COM
Suns coach Jeff Hornacek has the ears of his players. He told them repeatedly since training camp that every player has a chance at a role and that wins were going to have come by a collaborative effort.
The Suns believed in Hornacek, but not as much as when he showed it to them in Friday night’s win over Utah.
It was more than Hornacek just keeping confidence in Eric Bledsoe through his frustrating night of fouls, misses and turnovers to be rewarded with fourth-quarter and last-second heroics. It was turning to three rookies. It was calling on Dionte Christmas, one of those rookies, and Ish Smith for critical minutes after they had just sweated out making the roster a week ago.
The Suns could not recapture their victorious opening night’s energy and were getting dragged down by Utah’s physical play. After scoring 50 and 54 in halves against Portland, the Suns trailed 46-43 at halftime Friday when Hornacek passed Christmas in a hallway.
“Christmas, stay ready,” Hornacek said as he walked by him.
Assistant coach Mike Longabardi followed: “Be ready. We need a spark.”
Just as Bledsoe had waited until his fourth season for the chance to make a game winner, Christmas toiled for four years overseas for this NBA chance. He had not played in the opener, but Hornacek called on him when Goran Dragic left due to a swollen cheekbone that affected his vision.
“I just had it in the back of my mind that he would call me, but he actually called me early (three minutes into the second half), and I was like, ‘Wow, get focused,’ ” Christmas said. “I just had to do what I do — bring energy and make shots.”
The catch-and-shoot specialist sure did. On his first touch, he made a 20-foot jumper. Christmas then grabbed a rebound, fed Bledsoe to start the fast break and filled the lane to get it back and draw a foul for two free throws. Moments later, Bledsoe found Christmas for a 3-pointer that completed a one-man 7-0 run that tied the game.
Christmas, 27, added a fourth-quarter fast-break layup for a total of nine points, the best scoring debut for a Suns player since Amar’e Stoudemire started his 2002-03 Rookie of the Year season with a 10-point effort.
Hornacek used 12 of the Suns’ 13 active players Friday night. Ten played in the first quarter. Smith made his Suns debut when P.J. Tucker had to go to the locker room after his collision with Dragic with 1:40 to go in the first half.
When Dragic could not continue, Smith wound up playing 12 minutes. He made 1 of 5 shots, missing three jumpers and a fast-break layup, but he also made two key fourth-quarter plays with a quick transition pull-up and a steal. He also grabbed five rebounds, more than either Suns starting forward on a night Hornacek said the guards would have to help on the boards (Utah had 22 offensive rebounds).
Smith was going to make the team over last year’s first-round draft pick, Kendall Marshall, before the trade because of how he could provide a spark. He adheres to how Hornacek wants ball pressure and a fast tempo.
“It’s a huge energy booster, a huge confidence booster and hopefully we can build on this,” said Smith, playing his fourth season on his sixth team. “The really good benches, they’re consistently good each and every night.
“Coach has been pretty honest and consistent with that. He tells us, everybody, ‘Be ready.’ ”
At one point Friday, the Suns were playing a second-half lineup of Smith, Christmas, Gerald Green, Markieff Morris and No. 5 draft pick Alex Len. The other first-round pick, Archie Goodwin, also played again and notched his first points with two drives but made bigger impacts with two blocked shots. Each block came after a mistake. One was when he got beat to the middle and one was when he was not running back on defense.
“I’m never giving up on a play,” Goodwin said. “I’ll use my athleticism, length and ability on offense and defense to contribute.”