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Brandon Knight Leads with Eric Bledsoe Out

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) gets fouled by Phoenix Suns' Alex Len, right, of Ukraine, as James goes up for a shot during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 28, 2015, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

PHOENIX — There is life after Eric Bledsoe.

The Suns played Cleveland into the final seconds Monday, their first game without point guard Bledsoe and the first of the two dozen or so Bledsoe is expected to miss following surgery to repair the meniscus in his left knee Tuesday. It probably went better than many expected.

An illegal screen call on Suns center Tyson Chandler created the sliver of separation the Cavaliers needed to hang on for a 101-97 victory, but the Suns had reason to feel good about themselves. Even though their losing streak reached five, they played with a cohesiveness that has not been evident in recent home losses to bottom-feeders Milwaukee, Denver and Philadelphia at the end of a 5-21 stretch.

The Suns executed in the half-court, which has become more of an emphasis now that push-and-penetrate point Bledsoe is out, and they threw the extra pass or two to get better shots from a starting group that will include Brandon Knight at point and Devin Booker at the “2” guard, his natural spot.

“We didn’t take too many of the quick shots that we’ve been trying to eliminate,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “We were right there. It’s still a loss, but it’s encouraging that without Eric … we’re out there with a lot of our young guys. That’s a good effort.”

It has not been a ho-ho holiday for the Suns and Hornacek. Forward Markieff Morris was suspended for two games after throwing a towel at Hornacek during a Dec. 23 game. Morris has texted an apology, but the two have not spoken, and Hornacek said he expects to sit down with Morris and general manager Ryan McDonough before Morris returns to the team for a Wednesday game at San Antonio.

Then Bledsoe went down against Philadelphia on Friday. And after team president Robert Sarver and McDonough met Sunday, two assistant coached were fired and two others, Earl Watson and Nate Bjorkgren, were promoted.

Hornacek, a knowledgeable basketball man and the son of a coach, is safe for now, McDonough seemed to indicate. Hornacek is in the final year of his four-year contract that includes a team option for 2016-17.

“Jeff has every opportunity and will continue to have every opportunity to work ourselves out of this hole and try to get back on the right track,” McDonough said early Monday.

The Suns (12-21) will try a different tack without Bledsoe, who is expected to miss six weeks, and this was a start.

The Suns will still look to run with Knight taking over the point, but Booker’s insertion into the starting lineup will lead to a more traditional look on the offensive end. A natural “2” guard, Booker will do the natural “2” things, scrape off screens for open mid-range jumpers — the kind of thing that made him a first-round draft pick out of Kentucky — and use the switches forced by the screens to probe other openings.

“We rely on Eric to push the ball and break down the defense and create plays for other guys,” Hornacek said. “We don’t have that right now, so we’re going to have to execute plays and sets a little bit better. We may not be that high-scoring team, but it we execute and make sure we set hard screens and make extra passes, you can still score the ball. We simplified some things. We were making progress.”

March 2, 2015 - Miami, FL, USA - Miami Heat's Goran Dragic tries to pass against the defense of Phoenix Suns' Brandon Knight during the first quarter on Monday, March 2, 2015, at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami

March 2, 2015 – Miami, FL, USA – Miami Heat’s Goran Dragic tries to pass against the defense of Phoenix Suns’ Brandon Knight during the first quarter on Monday, March 2, 2015, at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami

Knight had 18 points, and only a 3-pointer negated by the illegal screen call with 46.6 seconds remaining kept him from his fourth straight 20-point game, which would have been a season long. It was 96-95 at the time, and instead of a 98-96 lead, the Suns fell behind by four when Kyrie Irving’s forced 3-pointer with one second on the shot clock made it 99-95 with 21 seconds left.

“The overall effort was better than it has been,” Knight said. “Guys came out and played hard. It wasn’t the outcome that we wanted, but they’re a pretty good team. Based on the effort and execution, guys felt better about it and felt like it was something to build on.”

Small forward P.J.. Warren had 23 points off the bench while shooting 9-of-15 from the field, and Booker had 10 points, making 5-of-6. Both understand their roles will expand, and both seem prepared.

“‘Bled’ was the heart and soul of our team, but it’s just opportunity for other guys to step up,” Booker said. “Everybody on the team has been ready. You could see it today — we were playing a lot better together. Everyone was getting touches. It worked well for us.”

Warren: “Between me and Booker and P.J. (Tucker) being more aggressive, I feel like we can handle that. We played the right way, and we played good basketball.”

Bledsoe can be the Suns’ best backcourt defender, although at times during the recent troubles he has not shown it. The Suns will need to tighten up there; that would have been their charge even with Bledsoe. The Cavs shot 46.5 percent from the field, and they took 41 threes, making 17.

The Suns have done this before. They were 17-16 when Bledsoe missed 33 games with torn meniscus in his right knee in 2013-14, the year they won 48 games. Then, Markieff was playing well, Goran Dragic was on the point, and Gerald Green had a career year. The players have changed, but Hornacek believes that the speed Knight brings will keep the offense flowing if it is a little more regulated.

“We’re asking him to still push it, but maybe be more in control,” Hornacek said. “We want to get down there and see if we can get a layup. We’ll emphasize throw the ball ahead some more. As they push it, they have to make sure they get something good. “If not, then just get back in a set.”

 

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