Suns Riding Cycle of Team-First, Win-First Attitudes

Barry Gossage/NBAE

Gerald Green stood surrounded by reporters, who smiled as they fit questions around a deluge of comedic and celebratory shout-outs from teammates.

The scene took place Wednesday night, just moments after Green had hit a game-winning jumper that finished a six-point comeback in the final two minutes to give Phoenix a 104-103 win at Minnesota.

The other Suns’ good-natured comments and jeers have become a ritual, performed when yet another unlikely hero surfaces for the 21-13 team from Phoenix.

Wednesday night, it was Green’s turn. Tomorrow, probably someone else’s. More importantly, it could be anyone else.

The final play two plays at Minnesota drove that point home. Goran Dragic and Channing Frye had combined for 48 points, but they were the two players least involved in the final possession for each team. Markieff Morris provided the game-winning assist, Green the game-winning shot, P.J. Tucker the game-winning stop.

Jeff Hornacek, the man in charge of finding and maintaining the elusive, team-wide chemistry the team currently enjoys, says the team’s all-for-one attitude has been the reason for their surprising success.

“When they care about each other, when they’re willing to do anything to help each other succeed, you have a chance,” Hornacek said. “That’s what these guys have done.”

Such team unity has bridged everything from age gaps (Channing Frye is 30, Archie Goodwin 19) to vastly unique backgrounds both in culture (the Suns represent three continents and four countries) and basketball:

  • Lottery picks: Alex Len (5th), Channing Frye (8th), Markieff Morris (13th), Marcus Morris (14th)
  • Mid-to-late first-rounders: Eric Bledsoe (18th), Gerald Green (18th), Archie Goodwin (29th), Miles Plumlee (26th), Leandro Barbosa (28th)
  • Second-round picks: P.J. Tucker (35th), Goran Dragic (45th)
  • Undrafted players: Ish Smith, Dionte Christmas, Slava Kravtsov

It’s their differences, Channing Frye says, that makes the Suns such a dangerous team each and every night.

“If you look at our team, everyone does something different,” Frye said. “Goran plays different than Eric plays different than Ish plays different than Gerald plays different than P.J. plays different than Marcus plays different than Markieff. Each game the team is going to dictate who’s going to play and who’s not and who’s not.”

Not every team handles that approach well. Minutes, particularly crunch-time minutes, are a source of pride when received and bitterness when withheld.

Hornacek, however, has stayed true to his plan of playing who’s hot and/or who matches up well to the other team. Marcus Morris averages the fewest minutes per game (22.7 mpg) of the regular rotation players – but leads the team in average fourth-quarter minutes this season (9.0).

The Suns accept the fact that varying minutes and lineups are a matter of both need and confidence. Anyone can go off at any time, and they’ve realized Hornacek’s hunches expose a hot hand more often than not.

"When P.J. and I had a bad game in Denver, we were like ‘Gosh, we played like crap,’” Frye said. “Other guys were like, ‘we got you man,’ just joking around on the bus. That’s how it is. There’s never a time where it’s like, ‘oh man I should have gotten those minutes.’ It’s more like, ‘I have to do more with what I’m given because I know why I’m given this many minutes.’ Coach has done a great job with that.”

“We are addicted to winning. It’s an overpowering feeling, more than ‘are you tired’ or ‘are you selfish’, more than anything else.”

— Channing Frye

Those feelings extend all the way to the end of the bench. Hornacek hasn’t hesitated to insert Dionte Christmas, Ish Smith or Archie Goodwin ahead of other rotation players if he feels the need. Smith was the latest among them to get the post-game star ribbing from teammates after a game-swinging eight-point, eight-assist effort off the bench against Milwaukee. Goodwin and Christmas have had their moments as well.

“You see when they do get an opportunity to get in the game and they score or something, make a nice pass, the guys are all up for them,” Hornacek said. “That’s part of the chemistry. To be a good team, to have good chemistry is not just the guys who play, but the other guys who play their role.”

Winning obviously makes the chemistry easier, but it helps that the players themselves have an impatience to win in the first place. The Suns acquired a taste for it early when they started the season 5-2.

Those victories became the carrot Phoenix has obsessively pursued since, to the point where minutes/roles politics are no longer a factor.

“We are addicted to winning,” Frye said. “It’s an overpowering feeling, more than ‘are you tired’ or ‘are you selfish’, more than anything else.”

When the season started, the Suns were pegged by many to win less than 20 games. They surpassed that mark before 2013, but Frye says their early success has made them hungrier rather than satisfied or content.

“Winning has not become boring for us yet,” he said.

Winning is never boring, but seeing everyone play a role in it has made the process downright fun for the Suns. At the end of the day, P.J. Tucker says, the process has been just as enjoyable as the result.

“We’re all playing for each other,” Tucker said. “We’ve got so many guys who are so hungry and want to play and want to prove themselves in this league. Everybody wants to win. Everybody bet against us at the beginning of the year. We play so loose because we’ve got nothing to lose.”