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Goran Dragic excels in return to court, but continues to do so alone

PHOENIX — “Rocky is back in the building!”

The proclamation was a bold one considering the tenants of the US Airways Center are also the cellar dwellers of the Western Conference.

Then again Phoenix Suns interim head coach Lindsey Hunter was on to something. After all Goran Dragic has been the main, if not the only, attraction in one of the darkest seasons in team history.

Dragic was in fact back in uniform Saturday night against the Pacers, and despite a six-day hiatus from competitive action, he looked pretty darn impressive.

While the Slovenian failed to put up the gaudy numbers he did the last time he suited up for Phoenix (31 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds in a 102-100 loss to Brooklyn), Dragic’s mere presence was obvious.

Without him, the Suns had an opportunity to get a look at Kendall Marshall and Diante Garrett. They also had an opportunity to drop meaningless late-season games with the hopes of earning a few more ping pong balls come summertime.

Both short-term goals were achieved, although the product on the court was clearly lacking. The Suns bumbled and stumbled through two losses to the Jazz and Kings on Wednesday and Thursday night — all while their budding star of a point guard sat uselessly on the sidelines.

“The kid looks like he’s been boxing,” Hunter explained during his pre-game media session Saturday. “You see him after games and think there is no way this kid is getting up to practice tomorrow. You love that about him, because he is a competitor. Regardless of the situation, he wants to be on the floor and compete.”

Dragic was out on the court for a team-high 37:51 Saturday night, and showed no ill effects from his time off or the previously-described beatings he’s supposedly taken throughout the course of the season.

If anything the Suns’ prizefighter continued to dish out blow after blow against Indiana. While Dragic fell an assist shy of his sixth straight double-digit assist game, he controlled pace at the offensive end, spaced the floor well and single-handedly (scored 10 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter) tried to will his team to victory down the stretch.

“He looked like he had rockets on his shoes tonight,” said Hunter. “He looked really good. He looked fresh.”

After Phoenix’s 112-104 defeat, Dragic didn’t vocalize any sense of exhaustion. Not that his seamless transition back into the lineup comes as any surprise.

“I was fine,” a matter-of-fact Dragic said. “Maybe in the first quarter I was breathing hard, but after I went through that I felt fine.”

While Dragic did get some help from his supporting cast Saturday night — six players scored in double-figures — the season’s theme played out yet again for the Suns.

When Phoenix needed a big play, only Dragic seemed ready to handle the moment. So much so, that he attempted to go 1-on-3 with the Suns trailing by five and 1:14 still on the clock. With no teammate in sight, he drove, lost the ball and then out of frustration committed his sixth foul.

If Hunter wants to rest his point guard the rest of the way because he’s been bruised and battered, by all means he should. But if the ultimate goal is to save him for next year, then what’s the point?

A fresh Dragic won’t matter much if he continues to spend his days in Phoenix fighting in a ring all alone.