MILWAUKEE -- There's no blueprint for rebuilding an NBA team. The matchup between the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks provided an interesting case study.
The Suns, who finished last in the Western Conference last year, entered the season in a similar situation as the Bucks. Their roster features 10 new faces and first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek joined the team in the off-season. The Bucks started the season with 11 new players and a new coach in Larry Drew.
On Wednesday night, the Suns demonstrated why they're 19 games ahead of the Bucks in a 126-117 victory at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. They have a variety of players who can hurt you, they figured out quickly how to play together and they've learned how to win.
Playing their third game in a stretch of four road games in five nights, the Suns spread the minutes around and got solid contributions from their whole roster without any player being on the court for more than 30 minutes.
"I think their coach does a great job utilizing their team, the different weapons that they have, the different mismatches that they present and getting them all to be active on offense," said Bucks center Larry Sanders, who had 14 points and nine rebounds in possibly his best performance of the season.
"They have a lot of weapons."
A lot of weapons, indeed. Channing Frye quickly chalked up all 13 of his points in the first half. Next Gerald Green got hot, scoring 14 of his 23 points in the third quarter while receiving jeers from the stands. Off the bench, the Morris twins, Marcus and Markief, combined for 29 points on 50 percent shooting.
Finally Goran Dragic, who Drew called "the head of the snake," struck the lethal blow in the fourth quarter. The Bucks trimmed a 23-point deficit to as few as five points, but in a span of less than 3 minutes late in the game, Dragic scored 13 of his game-high 30 to put the win away.
"They've got all the components," Drew said. "No real sexy players, but they've got really good players. Really, really good players. The ball doesn't stick; they move the basketball; they play the game the way the game should be played.
"They've got a good chemistry; I think they've got a really good balance."
In the loss, the Bucks provided a much better performance for their fans. Along with the re-emergence of Sanders, Milwaukee got quality outputs from Ersan Ilyasova, Brandon Knight and even Nate Wolters, who played extended minutes.
Ilyasova started slow, but heated up for a team-high 27 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter while the team was trying to claw back into the game. Knight was the opposite -- scoring his 24 points in the first three quarters -- then struggled in the fourth when he turned the ball over on back-to-back possessions and failed to score during the comeback attempt. He did have five of his eight assists in the final frame, though.
"It just seems like every time I felt that we were in a position where we could kind of turn the corner just a little bit there was a breakdown," Drew said. "I believe at the start of the fourth quarter we had three consecutive turnovers."
Playing rare first-half minutes, Wolters made an immediate impact scoring seven points. He finished with 11 and dished out four assists.
But despite a better overall effort, the Bucks still haven't figured out how to win. Hornacek says the Suns learned how to win by losing tight games to Oklahoma City and San Antonio earlier in the season. With that experience, Phoenix has surprised everyone with its success in the highly-competitive Western Conference.
"I think the difference when you look at both teams is I think they went a little bit younger than we did as far as bringing in the new pieces," Drew said. "They made it a point that they were going to solely go with their young guys, and they've had some guys really respond to it."
For now, the Bucks will try to find positives in their losses, and Drew will search for a recipe to get his players to succeed like the Suns. Even if the Bucks can figure it out, it'll be too late to salvage this season.
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