The Phoenix Suns have won four out of their last five games with a good shot at winning most if not all of their next five games against teams with a combined winning percentage of .335. The schedule helps but watching the Suns (and their tweets) it's clear that the team is feeling energized and confident.
What's gone right for the Suns and is it sustainable when the schedule gets tougher?
The first part of that question is fairly easy to answer with our Four Points of Clarity feature that we just created for this story.
1) Vince Carter, as detailed by Bright Side of the Sun, has been a consistent scoring threat since arriving to the Suns. More recently however, he's starting to other things like rebound the ball (12 against the Knicks) and most importantly, get to the free throw line.
In six of Carter's first seven games with the Suns, he got to the line just one time. That's one free throw in six games. In the wins over Portland and New York he had eight total free throw attempts. Vince needs to aggressively attack and not constantly spin away from contact. His three-point shooting is going to be up and down like all shooters, but Vince can still get by his man and draw contact -- if he wants to.
2) Robin Lopez has played better for the Suns recently. In the four recent wins he scored over 10 points and is starting to finish with authority again. It was good to see Gentry go to him against a smaller defender in the post in the Knicks game and he should have similar opportunities against J.J. Hickson and the Cavs, not to mention the defensively challenged Wizards and diminutive Pistons.
Robin's been both more aggressive but also more athletic. This dunk he had over Wilson Chandler on Monday was routine last season before his back injury but I can't recall seeing a single one this season...until now.
And if the video doesn't prove it, check out this Getty Image of the mid-flight action.
3) Hakim Warrick is back in the rotation in an established role that's perfectly suited for his skill set. He's been coming off the bench as an offensive threat and seems to understand that in his 13 or so minutes he needs to give max effort on the glass and on defense. The pick and roll offense will suffer when he's on the floor with Gortat instead of Frye but he's a decent enough individual post player and passer that the offense can run through him in isolation more.
4) Alvin Gentry is adjusting to having two bigs on the floor and the resulting lose of spacing by forcing the ball through the post at the expense of Dragic's drive and kick game. The result is high percentage shots and a slowly improving chemistry between the bigs on their interior passing and high-low game. Both Warrick and Marcin Gortat pass the ball well and can hit cutters and find each other.
Gentry has also followed through on his promises to find a consistent starting lineup and shorten his bench. Both Mickael Pietrus and Josh Childress were DNP-CD'd against the Knicks as Jared Dudley and Goran Dragic split time at the backup shooting guard position. Dragic plays very well with Nash (who doesn't) and his time on the court at the two guard helps him get more minutes and play better when Nash is resting. It is vital for the Suns to get consistent bench play and Gentry's adjustments are making progress in that area.
Can it last?
The Suns have underperformed their talent level for most of the season and certainly in the ten game stretch (3-7) following the trade. On this more recent run they've just barely managed to beat the Nets and Cavs at home and picked up more impressive wins over the Blazers and Knicsk who are decent, but not elite teams.
Most likely, the Suns are simply coming back to where they should be which is a good team that's going to struggle against the league's top tier and mix in some disappointed losses as well. That's progress but only because they are digging their way out of such a deep hole.
The real question is can a team that's so dependent on aging stars Steve Nash and Grant Hill count on those guys giving consistent performances through the back half of the season and if not, can Vince Carter step into the role the Suns need him to play. Unfortunately, I doubt it.
With 43 games left on the schedule, which does include an upcoming 12-game stretch with only two road games, I can see the Suns going something like 23-20. That would give them 41 wins on the season which likely isn't good enough to make the playoffs.
Of course, just a four or five extra wins along the way probably will get them to that coveted eight seed and a date in the first round with San Antonio. Who wouldn't want to see that (again).