PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns know guards.
It’s in the franchise DNA.
From Paul Westphal and Walter Davis through Kevin Johnson, Jason Kidd and two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, the Suns have consistently been pushed by a guard at the top of his game.
This season they have two.
In Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, the Suns lead with two of the top 13 scorers in the league. Oklahoma City is the only other team with a similar one-two punch. Bledsoe is averaging 22.9 points a game and Knight is a free throw behind at 21.9. Only four guards in the league have higher averages — reigning MVP Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard.
“You have to pick your poison,” Bledsoe said with a smile.
“It is going to be me or Brandon you put your best defender on. We’re going to take advantage of it.”
When the Suns played in New Orleans last Sunday, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said the Suns’ tandem was playing as swell as any backcourt in the league. And this is the guy who had Curry and Klay Thompson as the lead assistant for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors a year ago.
“I definitely appreciate it,” Bledsoe said.
“We still have a long ways to go.”
Both Bledsoe and Knight may be best categorized as point guards, but Bledsoe has been charged with the majority of the ball-handling and is more likely to be the one setting the offense on the possessions where setting is required.
As they did with Johnson and with the maestro Nash, the Suns still like to push the ball and react to what happens at the other end.
It’s translated well. The Suns are fourth in the league in scoring at 105.5 points a game, and they’re doing it efficiently. The Suns are in the upper half of the league with a 54 true shooting percentage, a stat that corrects for the value of a three-pointer. For every 100 possessions, they’re scoring 105 points, eighth in the league.
The two-point plan is designed to challenge a defense that’s not used to facing two quick, attacking guards who are equally adept at penetrating the lane and perimeter shooting. Bledsoe and Knight have an identical 52.1 true shooting percentage, and both are ranked among the top 15 in value over replacement player.
“When we move the ball from side to side when those two guys are on swing action, that puts a lot of pressure on the defense,” said Suns coach Jeff Hornacek, who teamed with Johnson in a Suns backcourt that made four straight playoff appearances from 1989-92 and finished his 15-year NBA career in Utah.
“The defense has to come over onto one side for a pick-and-roll, and then if we can swing it quick, now they are scrambling to get over there. We make extra passes and we should get easy shots.”
It doesn’t seem to matter which one gets the shots, either. When Hornacek called a play for Bledsoe in a game at Denver last week, Bledsoe deferred to the hot-handed Knight, who was on his way to a career-high 38 points. When Knight had his first career triple-double against the Lakers on Nov. 16, Bledsoe was first to leap off the bench after the final rebound, whipping a white towel over his head.
“We’ll try to take advantage of the matchups and who’s rolling and just them go,” Hornacek said.
“They work well together. We’ve had time when one was rolling and the other one is still out there, I wouldn’t say being a decoy, but being a guy they have to honor. Usually when one guy gets hot, maybe (a defense) can go double him with somebody. We always feel like we have two weapons out there.”
The two have taken turns rolling, sometimes in the same game. Knight tied his career high with 37 points against the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 12 when Bledsoe finished one assist short of a triple-double with 26 points and 11 assists. Bledsoe scored 20 points in a career-high eight straight games before missing last Monday’s game with a knee injury. Bledsoe returned in a loss to New Orleans on Wednesday but didn’t appear himself, making 5-of-16 field goal attempts.
“Both of us are competitors at the end of the day,” Bledsoe said. “I feel like we can go out and compete with anybody. We’re going to do what it takes. We have a layup or a dive or a shot, we are going to shoot it.”
Knight has three 30-point games, and his 41 three-pointers are sixth in the league. Bledsoe is averaging 5.9 assists per game and is tied with Kawhi Leonard for 13th in the league with 1.9 steals per game. Bledsoe will occasionally defend another team’s off guard, as he did at times against Chicago’s Jimmy Butler last week.
Their comfort level is apparent, and there will be ample room for more. Knight signed a five-year, $70 million contract in the offseason, a year after Bledsoe signed a deal with the same terms. The two followed each other at the University of Kentucky; Bledsoe an NBA first-round draft choice in 2010 and Knight a first-rounder a year later.
It also helps that roles are more defined than last season, when the Suns obtained Knight in a trade deadline flurry in which they traded both Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas. The Suns’ signing of Thomas upset the backcourt balance between Bledsoe and Dragic last season and led to some internal discontent.
There’s been none of that this season. The pieces for a long run appear to be in place.
“We’ve definitely made some mistakes, but we’re definitely finding a way to will our team or help be productive,” Bledsoe said.