PHOENIX — An injury necessitated the change.
Success may make the moves permanent, at least until no longer successful.
Not that Jeff Hornacek is superstitious or anything, but the second-year Phoenix Suns head coach is not one to change, especially when things are going well. And right now, things are going well, very well.
The Suns (38-33) have won four straight and five of their last six to leapfrog New Orleans and pull to within three games of eighth-place Oklahoma City in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Coincidently, the recent success has come despite the injury to point guard Brandon Knight.
With Knight sidelined, Hornacek inserted Marcus Morris into the starting lineup at small forward, sliding PJ Tucker to shooting guard.
Knight practiced Tuesday for the first time since spraining his left ankle against Golden State March 9. He’s considered questionable when the Suns host Sacramento Wednesday.
The question posed to Hornacek after practice was if Knight does play, does he regain his starting backcourt spot alongside Eric Bledsoe?
“We just kind of touched on it,” Hornacek answered. “Right now I’m leaning to leaving (the first unit) the way it is just because he hasn’t played in two or three weeks. To throw him in there, it might be better to get him a few minutes here and there just to get back acclimated.”
To his credit, Knight, who has started in 265 of the 275 games he’s played in four NBA seasons, is perfectly fine with coming off the bench.
“Team is playing well,” he said, “so for myself, it’s about being able to help the team and make sure I’m protecting myself at the same time.”
During this 5-1 stretch, the Suns have improved their play on the defensive end of the floor.
“Our communication is better,” Tucker explained.
The numbers back that up.
The Suns rank third in points allowed per game (9.13) and ninth in opponent field goal percentage (42.9) over the last six games.
“It’s more of a defensive team out there than the offensive squad we had prior to that,” Hornacek said. “They’re in a mindset that when it comes to those last five, six minutes of the game that they’re pretty confident they can stop guys. That’s a big deal.”
For the first time this season, the Suns have limited three straight opponents to sub-20-point fourth quarters.
“The way we’ve really come together and get stops at the end to finish games off has been great,” Tucker said. “My teammates are really stepping it up.”
Another byproduct of Morris starting is the added size it gives the Suns along the frontline.
Morris is 6-9 and joins 6-10 Markieff Morris and 7-1 Alex Len, not to mention Tucker, who checks in at 6-6, for a look other teams have not seen much of this season.
The result is the Suns have owned the boards, outrebounding their last six opponents.
“Me starting at the 3 and Tuck at the 2, we’re really big,” Marcus Morris said. “Any team with a smaller 2 or smaller 3, we’re crashing (the boards), we’re crashing real hard.”
Said Markieff, “We’ve got length, we’re big. PJ on two-guards, he’s laying on them all game, beating them up all game and I think that’s been the key, those two guys in there, defensively.”
The bigger lineup has also allowed for more switching on the defensive end, according to Hornacek.
Of course no one is saying the Suns couldn’t use Knight and his 17.2 points, 3.9 rebounds and 5.3 rebounds per game.
“It’s great to have ‘B’ back and he’s definitely going to help the team,” Marcus said. “As far as starting unit, I’m not sure how they’re going to do it, but our starting unit has been playing really well. I think our chemistry on that first unit has really been well—even the young guys coming in. The chemistry has just been right. I think ‘B’ is going to add to it. He’s a great player, he’s a great teammate. We’ll see how it goes.”
With 11 games remaining in this playoff push, Hornacek said all help is needed at this point.
“If (Knight is) back, it just gives us another weapon,” he said. “We can always go to the big lineup later on, and obviously it will be a big part of what we do moving forward, but there’s times where we can spread it out on teams, too.
“We need to get him back as soon as we can.”