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Suns defense improves, rotation changes as 4-game skid ends in Toronto

Sometimes, a four-game losing skid tailing into a six-game road trip means trouble.

The Suns hope it means finding fixes for a defense that allowed 120 or more points in three of those four losses.

Against an 11-7 Toronto Raptors team to start the road trip, Phoenix can breathe a little better after a personnel shift coincided with a 107-102 victory against a team ranked seventh in offensive rating. No, the defense wasn’t perfect by allowing 44 percent shooting and 41 percent from deep, but it wasn’t bad.

It helped that Jeff Hornacek’s team only turned the ball over 10 times, and a close game late wouldn’t, as it has many times this season, go in favor of a team taking advantage of miscues and breakdowns from the Suns’ end.

Instead, P.J. Tucker’s score off an offensive rebound with a minute left and defensive board on the ensuing Toronto possession helped Phoenix seal the game. Eric Bledsoe then blocked Raptors forward Luis Scola on a three-point attempt that would have tied the game at 105 with a second left.

Hours before the Suns failed to contain the Pelicans last Wednesday and two days before they allowed 135 points and 22 three-point hits to the Warriors, Hornacek admitted Phoenix’s defense was good from the effort perspective.

As far as intelligence, it was disappointing.

“I think the next step is we have to play a little smarter in terms of knowing exactly who your personnel is,” Hornacek said.

“We’re worried about a guy who’s maybe not a great shooter but that’s your man. The thought is, ‘I’m stopping my guy.'”

That, or the Suns guarding great shooters would leave their man to help cut off a driving opponent. That’s what happened Friday, as Phoenix’s players took their eyes off the world’s best shooter, Stephen Curry, who too many times slipped open off the ball.

Smart team defense is the name of the game.

Against the Raptors, the Suns’ starting lineup may have struggled with Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Markieff Morris combining to shoot 30 percent on 46 combined attempts, but the defense — even with center Tyson Chandler sidelined with a strained hamstring — proved capable.

More telling on Sunday night was Hornacek’s use of the bench unit.

Sure, the forward trio of Jon Leuer, Mirza Teletovic and T.J. Warren more than made up for the offensive inefficiencies of the starting lineup, shooting 63 percent on 32 attempts and hitting 8-of-12 from three.

But that those three and Ronnie Price were the only players off the bench said a lot about Phoenix’s push to improve defensively.

A game after Warren notched a career-high 28 points but said afterward that his defensive focus must remain to earn a bigger role, he played his second game of 30 or more minutes. He scored 15 points and more importantly added three blocks, a steal and 11 rebounds.

Days after Hornacek praised Leuer for his defensive positioning following the forward’s 20-point performance against the Pelicans, the big man played as many minutes (23) as starting power forward Markieff Morris while adding 16 points.

Teletovic, meanwhile, co-led Phoenix with 20 points to match Bledsoe and hit six threes. Physically, he leaves something to be desired aside from having the strength to stop big men on postups, but the Bosnian gunner at least knows where he should be positioned.

Then there’s Price, the ball-hawking point guard who shows best in short bursts. By the end of his 22 minutes played against the Raptors, Price went 0-of-4 for zero points yet still led the team in plus-minus as the Suns outscored Toronto by nine points when Price was on the court.

Coincidence or not, Toronto scored at a paltry pace of 77 points per 100 possessions with Price in the game (they scored at least 90 points per 100 possessions against every other Suns player).

The outcome probably doesn’t mean that rookie Devin Booker and third-year guard Archie Goodwin are out of the rotation for good. The Suns will need their fresher bodies and unique skillsets over the course of the season.

It is, however, an indication that Hornacek and the Suns know who to turn to for the most solid defensive performance possible over the course of 48 minutes.


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