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Suns use film, analytics to bolster trust; Bender gives a boost

Chicago Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen (24) spins around Phoenix Suns forward Dragan Bender (35) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, March 18, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — Having gone 6-5 over their last 11 games, the Phoenix Suns coaching staff might fear that a 15-point loss Monday to the Chicago Bulls marked a point where the wheels could come off.

So instead of drill them a la the Bulls in head coach Jim Boylen’s first week on the job, which caused a brief rebellion, Igor Kokoskov did the opposite Tuesday.

He gave his players a “pro day” less than 24 hours after the energy wasn’t there and even wide open shots for a talented shooter like Devin Booker clanked short off the rim. Players watched film, lifted weights and then went on their way to go through individual drills if they needed work.

After a strong past three weeks, the Suns still got things done to nip one bad game in the bud.

“Trust is huge at every level. (We were) just understanding all the tweaks and the adjustments that recently we did — when it comes to the pick-and-roll coverage for example — that we’re on the same page and understanding why we’re doing that,” Kokoskov said of the film session.

“I’m not a coach who is relying completely on the analytics, but it’s something we have to be aware of and consider. Just sharing some numbers with the guys so those numbers belong to them — they work hard for those.”

Call the analytics ink on a report card that’s showing progress.

Tuesday was about keeping the Suns from taking steps backward after pick-and-roll coverages, among other things, led to breakdowns against Chicago.

Bender quietly stabilizing defense

Concern over one game comes after Phoenix took steps forward lately.

The reasons for that are complex, and while it’s easy to cite a number of things, the insertion of Dragan Bender into the lineup 10 games back has gone under the radar; he followed the more obvious changes Kokoskov made when point guard Tyler Johnson and Kelly Oubre Jr. entered the starting unit two games prior.

The move of Bender into the starting group had a philosophy behind it.

“We changed our defensive coverage and you know, it’s working really well with me and Deandre (Ayton) protecting the rim,” Bender said, adding the changes were about “being able to force the opponents to shoot tough, contested midrange shots.”

Watch a few clips of the Suns’ pick-and-roll coverages of late, and their bigs, in general, have been dropping into the paint more, allowing their guard teammates to recover on opponents whether they go over or under screens.

It’s about inviting long-range twos by sinking back against any player not labeled as an above-average shooter.

Pairing Bender with center Ayton, who himself has improved defensively, has given Phoenix two long athletes on its backline.

Tracking data for the year shows opponents are shooting 54.7 percent inside six feet when Bender is in the vicinity, just 0.4 percent worse than the Suns’ best rim protector, backup center Richaun Holmes.

While the offensive rating is enough to make him a net negative, Bender’s defense has been noticeably helping the Suns avoid duds to begin games. When Bender is on the court over the 10 games he’s started, Phoenix is allowing a defensive rating of 106, behind only Holmes (98.2) and Troy Daniels (105.7).

The Suns have a defensive rating of 109 when Bender is not on the court over that span.

“He’s a young player,” Kokoskov said. “I’m glad he never stopped working on his game. He never felt sorry for himself … the amount of games he started last year and then there’s a big part of this season he didn’t play at all.

“I think he gives us stability. Very intelligent basketball player.”

Plagued by indecision in his first two seasons, the 21-year-old’s confidence appears to be stabilized as well. That maybe shows best in his three-point shooting, which has clicked up to a meager 33 percent in his 10 starts. For the year, his three-point accuracy is still sitting at 21 percent.

“Not playing for 50 games and trying to come in and shoot the ball is not the same,” Bender admitted. “It just took time.”

Bender called it “far away from now” before he will to start thinking about his impending free agency after Phoenix declined to pick up the final year on his rookie option before the 2018-19 began.

Kokoskov believes a long NBA future remains ahead of Bender.

“He’s helping this team in this moment, and we’re helping him, too. I feel that he’s getting better,” the head coach said.

Asked if Bender’s confidence has grown this season, Kokoskov put it aptly: “Yes, but never enough.”

‘Status quo’ for injured Suns

Without a practice to judge the health of his players, Kokoskov had little in terms of injury updates on Tuesday.

T.J. Warren is still going through light shooting on the side, while point guard Tyler Johnson is “feeling better” with knee soreness.

Kelly Oubre Jr.’s thumb injury puts his return in question for Thursday’s game against Detroit.

The most promising news: Holmes (quad strain) is expected to practice Wednesday.

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