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Puzzle pieces have fit for Suns’ lineups without Devin Booker

Phoenix Suns center Alex Len (21) blocks a shot by Dallas Mavericks forward Harrison Barnes (40) shoots during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Dallas, Monday, Dec. 18, 2017. The Suns won 97-91. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
LISTEN: Jay Triano, Suns Interim Head Coach

It would be foolish to say the Phoenix Suns are a better team without Devin Booker, who has missed the last two weeks with an injured adductor muscle.

Have they played better basketball without him? Aesthetically and from an execution standpoint, you could make that argument.

The Suns took their star’s absence as an opportunity to be a better team when he returns, and that appears to be a promise they’re living up to.

Since Booker went down on Dec. 5, Phoenix lost the next four before winning its last two against Minnesota on Saturday and Dallas on Monday. The outcomes might be more telling about the opponents than the Suns, but there is evidence that the recent developments are worthy talking points.

It’s Jay Triano’s bench unit that has been most surprising since Booker injured his groin.

Once a defensive-forward starting lineup with Tyson Chandler, Marquese Chriss, T.J. Warren, Tyler Ulis and Josh Jackson leaves the court, a spread offensive unit replaces it.

“I think we’re really playing with two different units. I think the second unit that’s coming in off the bench has really kind of meshed and gelled together,” Triano told 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s Doug & Wolf on Tuesday.

The success for the second unit is a result of a number of things.

Phoenix signed point guard Isaiah Canaan via an injury exception and scoring wing Danuel House prior to that. Both have added some punch off the dribble, but also have created gravity as defenses respect their shooting abilities.

Triano is quick to point out that both players, plus backup shooting guard Troy Daniels, have familiarity with one another. All were products of the Houston Rockets’ G League team in Rio Grande Valley, one that has acted as a start-up incubator of sorts for the NBA squad’s league-leading offense.

“Dragan (Bender) and Alex Len with that group kind of fit in really nice with how we’re trying to play with the floor spread and create three-point opportunities,” Triano said.

Canaan brings familiarity to the table after having spent a couple days of training camp working out with the Suns. He’s added shooting, playmaking off the bounce and a physical, bigger defensive presence at point guard.

Daniels is enjoying his best stretch of the year, while Bender has found his shooting stroke — he recorded a career-high 17 points over the weekend. At center, Len has taken on a unique role as a playmaker in the high post.

“Kind of the new offense that we’ve put in in the last three weeks or two weeks, it’s conducive to our bigs being away from the basket and handling, where they can kind of pitch and screen, or dribble-handoff and roll to the basket,” Triano told Doug & Wolf. “I’ve been really pleased with the way Alex picked that up. Again, it’s simple things for him. I think the simpler we keep it, the more he can concentrate on energy and effort.”

Len and Canaan have racked up assists playing off the pick-and-roll, while Len has also played a huge part in Daniels’ effectiveness — simple dribble-handoffs have opened up lots of opportunities.

Len has even been making secondary reads, catching a pass from a point guard while rolling and then kicking it out to Daniels or Bender for three.

In addition to the offensive production, Phoenix has been in the top-half of the league in defensive ratings over the past two weeks.

Looking at plus-minus and net rating scores for the entire season, the recent bench combinations have accounted for about half of the top-10 best lineups in terms of five-min units and three-man units for the entire season.

“Our starters are the guys that kind of go in and set the tone,” Triano said. “It’s kind of a nice mix with the players in the rotation right now.”

Few will accuse Phoenix of rolling out the more talented roster, and expectation is the bench will regress back to the mean once teams can scout its recurring tendencies. But for the Suns’ purposes, the last few weeks have been valuable in finding lineup combinations that overvalue length (starting lineup) and shooting (the bench).

For the time being, the Suns have found their identities. The challenge is not only remaining consistent but determining how to keep the puzzle pieces fitting together once Booker returns.

Jackson will likely head back to the bench, putting Daniels’ minutes in question. The domino effect in terms of what point guards play, who keeps a roster spot — Phoenix must waive a player once Booker is back — and how the rotation changes affect the floor spacing will be the things to watch.

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