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Suns’ winning streak, trade for Oubre come amid defensive uptick

Phoenix Suns' De'Anthony Melton, center left, defends against New York Knicks' Kevin Knox (20) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 17, 2018, in New York. The Suns won 128-110. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Devin Booker’s efficient return from a hamstring injury has the Phoenix Suns looking refreshed in the last two games.

But hints that a surge was coming for a team that entered December with just four wins appeared in moments well before Booker came back. It started on the defensive end, and the addition of Kelly Oubre in the trade that shipped Trevor Ariza to the Washington Wizards is expected to evolve the roster more in that direction.

It’s taken a few personnel changes to get to this point.

First, there was Mikal Bridges’ gradual ascent into the regular rotation.

More recently came the insertion of rookie point guard De’Anthony Melton into the lineup. He’s started six games this month, and even though opposing defenses have adjusted to cover his limited offensive repertoire over the past three games, all wins, his defense has kept him playing 21 minutes in each.

Melton has picked off his fair shares of passes or gotten deflections working on the weak side and ripping ball handlers. Most impressively for a rookie guard, he’s also been excellent defending pick-and-rolls and recovering.

Behind him, centers Deandre Ayton and Richaun Holmes have bolstered the backline as coach Igor Kokoskov has rewarded minutes based on who is affecting defense at the rim.

The key stat over the current three-game winning streak, or at least the one the team is keeping an eye on, has been deflections. Averaging 13.2 deflections per game this year, the Suns have pushed that number to 16.1 in nine December outings, per NBA tracking data.

“I think it’s the teamwork on both sides of the court. I think starts with the defensive end,” Kokoskov told Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station. “We keep complementing and encouraging guys. This is the fourth game in a row where we have almost 20 deflections per game. Activity’s better.”

The latest example was the 128-110 win Monday in Madison Square Garden, which saw Phoenix overcome a seven-point halftime deficit to outscore the Knicks 41-17 in the third quarter.

Throughout, the Suns were getting stops, but not until the second half did they begin to keep New York off its offensive glass.

“I didn’t like the way we started last game. Regardless on the gameplan and emphasizing how physical (the) Knicks team is, we didn’t set a tone from the beginning,” Kokoskov said. “I’m glad we changed that in the second half and activity, physicality and just the mindset was different — starting with Ayton.

“Ayton is somebody who set a tone, it’s very important. Regardless (that) he’s (a) rookie, he’s (a) young guy, his voice is important. His size and length and presence in the paint is huge. When he is vocal and he is active under the basket … (it) give us so much more confidence. We’re aggressive when he’s aggressive and more vocal.”

The No. 1 overall pick scored 21 points and grabbed 13 rebounds on Monday. He snuffed out earth-moving Knicks center Enes Kanter, who grabbed five offensive rebounds on the day.

And while he didn’t record a block, Ayton was active for a defensive unit that communicated and helped out.

That’s been the case since a Dec. 4 blowout against the Kings, when Ayton failed to record a block and didn’t pick up a personal foul in arguably his worst defensive outing of the year.

He didn’t start the next game due to an illness but since has recorded a double-double and a block in five of six games.

Overall, Phoenix’s defense has taken steps forward of late, even at points when the team sorely missed Booker on the offensive end.

This month, the Suns are holding opponents to a putrid 32.6 percent from three-point range. Their defensive rating — small sample size or not — would be considered average for the entire year, a step in the right direction for such a young team.

All this comes as Phoenix plans to integrate Oubre, an aggressive player who uses his length and athleticism to score and defend. The 23-year-old is expected to join the Suns by their Wednesday game against the Celtics, though it’s not known whether he will play.

Like the man he’s replacing, Ariza, Oubre could swing between both forward spots to play alongside fellow wings T.J. Warren, Josh Jackson and Bridges.

Defensively, at least, his style fits the Suns’ current trajectory as a long, disruptive team.

The 6-foot-7 Oubre ranks 11th in the NBA by averaging 3.1 deflections per game this year, joining Melton (2.5) and Bridges (2.2) as a top-50 player when it comes to that statistic.

And while the Suns waived the other piece to the Ariza trade, guard Austin Rivers, it’s the fit in style and age that makes Oubre an intriguing piece as the Suns hope to take further steps in the right direction.

“I think that it’s upgrade when it comes to talent,” Kokoskov said. “We definitely can use his scoring and ability to be active defensively. He can fit in our culture and our system in what we are trying to do right now as a team, as a group.”

Doug & Wolf

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