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Phoenix Suns glad to put January in the rearview mirror

Phoenix Suns guards Eric Bledsoe, front, and Devin Booker, center, and forward TJ Warren (12) react as time runs out in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017, in Denver. The Nuggets won 127-120. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

PHOENIX – For the Phoenix Suns, as well as much of the NBA, the month of January can’t end soon enough. Fortunately for them, they are now done with the year’s first month.

What began as a promising start to the new year, a 5-4 mark after losing at the L.A. Clippers on Jan. 2, ended in disappointment.

The current four-game losing streak matches a season-high.

“I don’t have concerns, just teaching opportunities: pick-and-roll defense, defending the corner 3,” head coach Earl Watson said Wednesday, after a one-hour early afternoon practice, which followed a 115-96 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies the night before. “We had a chance to go over our fundamentals and our foundation and as far as our defensive philosophies. Guys went hard today.”

The numbers are not pretty.

Over the last four games, the Suns rank near the bottom in points allowed (119.3, 27th) and opponent field goal percentage (50.7, 27th) and dead last among the 30 NBA teams in opponent 3-point shooting percentage (41.9), opponent free throws made (26.5) and opponent free throws attempted (31.3).

For the month, only the Detroit Pistons have defended the 3-point line worse than the Suns (43.0 percent compared to 40.1 percent), while opponents averaged better than 20 points from the foul line (20.4) on nearly 26 attempts (25.6) per game; the latter two statistics both ranked 28th.

For Watson, it’s all part of the growing process.

“For us, we’re a young team. It’s the longest month. A lot of our young guys are going to hit a mental mall. Physically, they’re still going to play,” he said, pointing specifically to rookie forwards Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss.

Bender remains sidelined with right ankle soreness, and Chriss, who had a career-high 20 points against the Grizzlies, “has finally come out of his rookie wall, so to speak,” according to Watson. “It’s more mental, so guys really don’t understand it until they get through it and get past it.”

In addition to youth, there’s another explanation for the Suns’ struggles, something that no NBA team can escape in January.

“This month is a hard month for a lot of players only because we all know what next month is, as a player,” Watson said, alluding to the trade deadline. “It’s not a distraction, but you acknowledge it. You know it’s there, and it somewhat can become a concern. I’ve seen a lot teams go through it.”

Watson mentioned there are only five current playoff teams that have gone 7-3 in their last 10 games: Denver, Golden State and Utah in the Western Conference plus Boston and Washington in the Eastern Conference.

A deeper look at teams’ January records shows half the league, 15 teams, own non-winning records, including the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, who finished 7-8.

Trade rumors and speculation have an effect on teams, according to Watson; of course some handle it better than others.

So, how do the Suns handle what Watson called a “unique time” in the NBA?

“You address it in creative ways, and for us, we just talk. A lot of talking, a lot of communicating, a lot of reassuring,” he said, “and the main thing is we can only control our actions. We can’t worry about someone else’s decisions in life, period. The only control you have is over your attitude and your actions and every day is another opportunity. You understand whatever happens is for the best and it always ends up for the best, so just stay positive and hopefully everything works out.”

FREE THROWS

— With his 22-point performance against the Grizzlies, guard Devin Booker averaged 25.4 points in January, becoming the first Suns player to average 25 points or more in a calendar month since Amar’e Stoudemire averaged 26.4 points in April 2010.

Booker enters February having scored 20-plus points in a career-long 13 straight games.

“Yeah, you can rely on that,” Watson said. “We understand Devin is going to bring it every night. He’s going to play with a purpose, with a sense of urgency. He’s going to fight to win every night, you understand that.”

— After a two-game absence as he battled a cold, point guard Tyler Ulis returned to the rotation with a 14:34 stint against the Grizzlies, the most playing time he’s seen in eight games and the fifth-most all season. Ulis finished with five points on 2-of-5 shooting, including one 3-pointer, two assists, two rebounds and two turnovers.

“I thought he was solid. He’s still sick,” Watson said. “We understand he’s playing one of the best point guards in the NBA, probably the most skilled point guard in the NBA hands down, Mike Conley. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but I thought Tyler did a solid job.”

— Heading into Wednesday’s homestand finale against the L.A. Clippers, Bender is once again considered questionable due to that right ankle. He has not played since the first half at Toronto on Jan. 22, missing each of the last four games.

Follow Craig Grialou on Twitter

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