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Against Rockets, Suns rookie Dragan Bender records first career double-double

Houston Rockets center Nene (42) drives between Phoenix Suns forward Dragan Bender (35) and center Alex Len (21) for a layup as James Harden (13) looks on in the first half of an NBA basketball game on Monday, Dec. 26, 2016 in Houston. (AP Photo/Bob Levey)

The ideal matchup for Dragan Bender came and went without his appearance four days prior. Facing the fast, screen-switch-inducing Houston Rockets, the Phoenix Suns didn’t turn to their 19-year-old forward.

Monday’s 131-115 loss to Houston didn’t go any better for the Suns, but in a game of disturbing and continued trends — bad defense, poor effort and poor shooting — it was Bender’s performance that provided an ever-so-slight positive.

Bender closed the loss with 11 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks, two assists and two steals. He went 5-for-11 from the field and 1-for-4 from three-point range.

Relatedly, it was Phoenix coach Earl Watson’s use of Bender in rotation minutes usually set aside for Jared Dudley and P.J. Tucker that put the Croatian rookie in position to find confidence during 27 total minutes. It was Bender’s second-highest total of minutes played through 31 Suns games this year.

Bender’s Top-5 minutes played, so far

28 minutes at Utah – Dec. 6

27 minutes at Houston – Dec. 26

25 minutes at Golden State – Dec. 3

23 minutes at Portland – Nov. 8

14 minutes at Golden State – Nov. 13

Playing 11 first-half minutes and 16 more in the second, Bender was both a recipient of significant minutes and garbage time. He finished with a plus-minus of 10 and fought off missed shots early to hit a three, earn a transition dunk, and scoop and score a reverse layup late in the second half.

The allure of Bender showed for a near-career-high in minutes played, and most of it came on the defensive end.

Spending time mostly as a true power forward, Bender was in the paint guarding bigs more than he was playing small forward earlier in the year. The result: more opportunities to rebound.

For his two blocked shots, Bender recovered after Eric Gordon blew past him to swat the Rockets guard from behind. Later, Bender got a piece of a shot when Montrezl Harrell tried to get a four-foot look over the 7-foot-1 forward.

Bender also earned an easy steal defending Harrell on the perimeter by aggressively forcing the Houston big man to toss a post-entry pass right into the Suns forward’s own hands as he jumped about on defense.

Around Bender and Brandon Knight’s 6-for-12 shooting effort for 21 points and just one turnover in 24 minutes, there wasn’t much room for positivity surrounding the Suns.

Tyson Chandler and P.J. Tucker played 20 and 21 minutes, respectively, and contributed a combined six points and 10 rebounds as the Rockets’ speed and, of course, James Harden stumped the Phoenix starting unit.

Eric Bledsoe led the Suns with 24 points but had five first-half turnovers. He went 8-for-20 from the field — sinking the efficiency was a 1-for-8 three-point effort by the 31-percent three-point shooter — better than backcourt mate Devin Booker’s 6-for-18 shooting evening.

As for Bender, the intrigue comes in whether Monday was an outlier.

It is to be determined whether he will continue earning minutes over Dudley and Tucker in the future — and whether those minutes come in blowouts or competitive stages of games against San Antonio, Toronto and Utah to close out 2016.

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