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Phoenix Suns keep it close, but struggling to get over the hump without Eric Bledsoe

PHOENIX — It would be easy to look at the Phoenix Suns’ recent struggles and attribute them to being without guard Eric Bledsoe. After all, they are 3-6 since he was hurt in a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 30.

However, that would be a little unfair to a group that has found a way to continue battling even without the second half of their dynamic backcourt. Are they better with Bledsoe? Absolutely. Are they hopeless without him? Absolutely not.

Though they’ve lost six of their last nine games without Bledsoe, they’ve done so by an average of just 4.2 points per defeat, and their last three are by margins of three, two and two.

“All our losses are right there,” forward P.J. Tucker said while recounting how close the team has been lately. “It’s just us coming out, especially first and third quarters, trying to put teams under. We let them get going, then we’ve got to fight, fight fight; we put ourselves in situations (where we have to) try to hit game-winners and you know how that goes. Maybe sometimes.”

It hasn’t happened often enough.

Friday’s 110-107 loss to the Dallas Mavericks moved the Suns down one spot in the Western Conference playoff picture, with the team sitting in eighth. They are now a full game behind the Mavs, and just two games ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets.

Once one of the league’s hottest teams, the Suns are struggling not to compete, as they did last year, but to get over the hump.

No doubt Bledsoe, who was averaging 18 points, 5.8 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game and had been coming up big late in games, would help.

“All games we were close, we just didn’t shoot the ball well,” point guard Goran Dragic said. “I think we were right there. But definitely, it’s much easier when Eric is with us. When he penetrates and I penetrate and then Gerald (Green) and Channing (Frye) get their space for shooting threes.

“Now it’s a little different, of course. We played well, especially with him in the lineup, then unfortunately that injury came and it’s a little different picture.”

Dragic is averaging 22.8 points, 6.4 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game over his last nine, doing the best he can to step up with Bledsoe out of the lineup. But he needs help, and the challenge is finding it on a consistent basis. Friday it was Markieff Morris, who scored 23 points. But besides he and Dragic, no other Sun had more than 13 points.

Meanwhile, the Mavericks had four players score 16 points or more, led by Monta Ellis’ 24 and Dirk Nowitzki’s 21.

“A lot of it’s on Goran, but then Markieff, we have to ride him as that second one,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “But then you can trail it down the line, now who’s our third one? It’s always great to have three or four scorers.

“They have Ellis and Dirk, but at times, like tonight, Larkin came in there and he was a guy that scored four or five times in a row.”

The Suns were designed to be a little abstract with a two-point guard lineup leading the way, and the returns were very positive. Unfortunately, even the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and the Suns are being forced to adapt to a new reality.

Their ability to do so will likely determine whether or not this season ends with a playoff berth or another trip to the lottery. While the team is hopeful Bledsoe will be able to return at some point this season, if the Suns don’t start winning again it may be too little too late.