PHOENIX — Eric Bledsoe suited up for the Suns but didn’t step on the court.
It appears he won’t for the rest of the year after playing in 66 games and averaging 21.1 points, 6.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game.
An hour and a half before tipoff on Wednesday, Kings coach Dave Joerger perhaps foresaw such an event when he warned reporters not to pull out their pens. He wasn’t going to reveal which Kings starters he would rest. And 20 minutes before tipoff, neither team had submitted their lineups.
Welcome to a game of cat-and-mouse, tanking style.
Sacramento (27-41), which won 107-101 at Talking Stick Resort Arena, listed two veterans on its roster as out for “planned rest,” while the Suns (22-46) listed healthy point guard Eric Bledsoe as neither a scratch nor a starter. Suns coach Earl Watson said afterward it was a “management decision.”
Asked if it was a one-game choice, Watson remained cryptic.
“Bled’s been great, he’s had a great season. He played at a high level. He’s been dominant all year,” the coach said. “There’s still a lot of room for him to grow. He knows that.
“He’s excited about continuing to be professional and support his teammates, continue to practice, continue to develop.”
So with Bledsoe now done for the final 14 games of the year, rookie point guard Tyler Ulis made his first career start for the game between third- and sixth-worst teams in the NBA. The starting lineup of Ulis (21), Devin Booker (20), T.J. Warren (23), Marquese Chriss (19) and Alex Len (23) averaged 21 years and 258 days old, the youngest in franchise history.
But two lottery-bound teams saw the epitome of the past draft’s uncertainty unfold before their eyes in just 48 minutes Wednesday night.
The Suns were largely considered the winner of a trade with the Kings that saw them acquire the No. 8 pick for the 13th, 28th, rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic and a future second-round choice last June. They used the eighth overall selection on Chriss while Sacramento took Georgios Papagiannis 13th, despite the Greek big man appearing nowhere on many mock drafts and certainly nowhere near the lottery.
Yet, in the Kings’ win on Wednesday, it was 28th pick Skal Labissiere, who rocked a Suns cap on draft night, reminding all that it’s far too soon to call the Suns winners of that deal.
Phoenix led 75-74 after three quarters before Labissiere exploded for 21 points in the fourth. The Haitian rookie finished with 32, besting his previous high of 15, while Papagiannis added three blocks and three rebounds against the shorthanded Suns.
“That was the difference, Skal took over,” Watson said. “It’s OK. He and Marquese can battle for the next 10, 15 years.”
Chriss finished with 17 points, seven boards and two assists.
Ulis scored 13 to go with 13 assists, while T.J. Warren led Phoenix with 24 points. Devin Booker added 19 on 6-for-26 shooting, and he and Ulis, who went 6-for-18, were unavailable to the media because they spent postgame working out on the Suns’ practice court.
“Shots weren’t falling tonight. Took it upon ourselves to get some extra work in,” center Alan Williams said after he finished up his own postgame workout. “It just shows we care, obviously. Myself, I’m disappointed in how I played today. Just try to be better.”
Tanking or not, the Suns found themselves even more shorthanded when forward Derrick Jones Jr. left with 8:40 after skying for a block and falling on his back. He didn’t return due to a hip contusion, though x-rays were negative.
Leandro Barbosa excused himself later in the second quarter and didn’t return in the second half due to illness.
Brandon Knight, who hasn’t appeared since the All-Star break as the Suns shifted to a younger lineup, was asked to play as backup to Ulis but said he had back spasms, leading to Ronnie Price’s first extended action. Knight had missed three games this year but due to a right wrist injury.
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