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Suns interim coach Earl Watson already proving he can motivate

Phoenix Suns' interim head coach Earl Watson calls a play during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Toronto Raptors, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Earl Watson won’t be able to curb the mistakes.

Strike that — he won’t unless he completely benches his young Suns a la Byron Scott in Los Angeles. And you know how that’s being perceived in Lakerland.

It’s true we’re talking about just two games.

It’s true Watson doesn’t have a choice whether or not to play some youngsters considering Phoenix’s injury situation.

What’s noteworthy has been the way the players have responded to the interim coach following negative plays, games or even a whole season. In a big or small way, Watson deserves credit for allowing his players’ confidence to grow like seedlings out of scorched earth.

Already on the list:

– Markieff Morris’ best game of a flat-out poor year — a 30-point, 11-rebound, 6-assist outing against the Raptors.

– Archie Goodwin’s 12-assist performance in the same game Tuesday following his 3-point, 1-of-11 shooting performance that also included three turnovers and no assists against the Mavs.

– Alex Len’s career-high 18-rebound game against Dwight Howard and the Rockets on Thursday.

It especially stands out that Len’s career night came on the heels of his miserable game Tuesday against the Raptors in which he went 1-of-5 from the field, fouled three times and had two turnovers. His plus-minus for those 16 minutes was a minus-21.

“He’s playing against Dwight Howard,” Watson said of Len after the 111-105 loss to the Rockets on Thursday. “For A-Len to have this game tonight is a great game in 27 minutes. He played well. He controlled the paint down the stretch, he gave us his heart. That’s growth.”

Watson is erasing the whiteboard after each game, not tinkering with the lineups between them.

So far, the structure, such as the clearly-stated totem poll of roles for each player, has helped on both ends.

“It’s a lot of learning, starting everything from scratch,” Len said after the Rockets game. “It’s kind of like college practices right now.”

Phoenix had scored more than 95 points in a game just twice over the Hornacek era’s last 11 games. In two games under Watson, Phoenix scored 97 and 105 points — solid for such an injury-plagued team.

Oddly enough, facing two playoff teams in Toronto and Houston have made the slight uptick in offense look sustainable. Maybe that’s because neither team ever looked panicked knowing Phoenix’s turnover tendencies.

Houston scored 18 points off turnovers in a 32-point third quarter, leading to 60 percent shooting. For the game, it was 24 turnovers converted to 38 points. That’s a theme bridging Watson’s two games with the Jeff Hornacek era.

Even the Suns’ strong defensive effort in the fourth held the Rockets to 23 points on 30 percent shooting, but the Rockets’ offense sent Phoenix scrambling to undo its unique, trapping zone defense. Once the Suns went back to man defense, they couldn’t stop their opponent from scoring nine points off as many offensive boards in the fourth quarter.

By the way, that zone didn’t look so shabby with Jordan McRae in the middle almost roaming free — and the zone has been used (minus the trapping aspect) with the P.J. Tucker and Mirza Teletovic forward lineup. That has become necessary with T.J. Warren sidelined, and the change in scheme along with it is likely to hide Teletovic on defense.

Between such innovations and the direct communication of roles on offense, it’s safe to say Watson has a plan.

He also has John Wooden quotes up his sleeve. It’s corny to some, but those who have been around perennial winners in any sport know inspirational cliches and absurd approaches can lead to success.

That all may not lead to wins with this Suns team. Or to fixing that turnover problem that itself is the No. 1 issue preventing victories.

Yes, the Rockets’ Patrick Beverley and Corey Brewer pressured Devin Booker and Goodwin like no other team has to this point. And yes, the Phoenix guards did combine for 11 turnovers. But Booker and Goodwin also led the Suns with 41 and 38 minutes played, tallied 11 combined assists and led Phoenix with 17 and 22 points.

Likewise, Len rebounded from his last game looking quite motivated.

Watson is allowing his young players to play through mistakes and respond with more than moral victories, but productivity.

For that to continue until the end of the year would probably surprise those who didn’t know Watson at the beginning of the week.

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