Jeff Hornacek’s Suns surprising everyone but themselves
NBA • Hornacek has players believing “we can play against the best teams in the NBA.”
Published: February 25, 2014 11:13PM
Updated: February 27, 2014 11:20PM
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Jeff Hornacek. Courtesy photo

The number: 19.5.

If you walked into a Las Vegas casino in the last days before the start of the NBA season and bet that the Phoenix Suns, a team coming off a dismal 25-win season the year before and seemingly in a rebuilding mode that would take years to complete, would finish with fewer wins than that, you probably would have felt pretty good.

The Suns had a first-year head coach who wanted to start two point guards (one of whom had never been a regular starter) and a forward with a heart defect. The team’s high lottery pick was hurt. And on Oct. 28, two days before the season opened, the front office traded away the starting center for one who won’t play a minute this year.

You might have felt good, but you would have lost your shirt.

As the Suns come to EnergySolutions Arena on Wednesday, they have already amassed 33 victories; they are 11 games over .500 and are firmly in the playoff hunt; and they are the NBA’s biggest surprise this year to just about everyone but themselves.

“Even from the first day of camp, I believe in our team,” said guard Goran Dragic, who is averaging 20 points and six assists a night, in one of the best years of his career. “It was kind of soon to think about playoffs at that time, but how the season was progressing everybody was really comfortable with our situation.”

Even with Eric Bledsoe, Dragic’s backcourt mate, still working his way back from an injury that threatened to throw the upstart Suns into a tailspin, Phoenix has found ways to win and is clutching the eighth spot in the ever crowded West.

And behind it all is a man the Utah Jazz are plenty familiar with.

Jeff Hornacek spent six season in Utah as a player, helping the Jazz make four trips to the Western Conference Finals. Even then, his teammates knew he would find a spot on the bench after he retired.

“We would be in practice sometimes and it would be over with,” said Hall of Fame forward Karl Malone, who played with Hornacek in two NBA Finals, “and he would huddle guys up and he would show you something.”

As an assistant for the Jazz from 2011-13, Hornacek was there to provide shooting tips to Gordon Hayward, Jeremy Evans and Derrick Favors — all part of the team’s young core, which he often coached during intrasquad scrimmages.

After leaving Utah for Phoenix last summer, Hornacek has taken over another young group, implementing a fast-paced offense heavy on 3-point shooting. The Suns average better than 98 possessions per 48 minutes, the sixth-fastest pace in the league, and they take more 3s (25.5 per game) than anyone but the Houston Rockets.

It’s a familiar look for Corbin, who played with Hornacek in a similar Suns offense under coach Cotton Fitzsimmons in the late ’80s.

“That’s a fun way to play if you’re making shots,” Corbin said.

The Suns are. Channing Frye, who missed last season after it was discovered he had an enlarged heart, is shooting 40 percent from behind the arc. Dragic, meanwhile, is hitting on 41 percent.

The Suns’ success, coupled with the Jazz’s struggles, makes Hornacek’s return trips to Salt Lake City, where his jersey hangs from the rafters at ESA, bittersweet for some. But it’s a “what-if” game with no conclusive results, said one former coach.

“Who’s to say if he was coaching Utah that he would have them in a better position than what Ty has them in right now?” said ESPN analyst Avery Johnson. “That’s one of those situations where we’ll never know the answer.”

What is known is that Hornacek has the Suns exceeding expectations across the board.

After being unable to crack the rotation in Indiana last season as a rookie, big man Miles Plumlee is enjoying a breakout season in Phoenix, averaging nine points and eight boards a game. He credits hard work and Hornacek for his success.

“He lets us play through mistakes,” Plumlee said. “He doesn’t kill you. When you have that short leash, guys are going to play a little more tight and not play as well. With a group of young guys, if you do that, I think it’s going to hinder their ability to play to their potential.”

Perhaps it’s a product of Hornacek being new on the job himself, though the Coach of the Year candidate hasn’t looked like a rookie this season.

“He always has the answer,” Dragic said. “I think the most important thing, especially for our team because we have a lot of young players, he’s always calm. He knows what he’s going to do on the next possession. That gives us players big confidence that we can play against the best teams in the NBA.”

afalk@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribjazz

Suns at Jazz

O At EnergySolutions Arena

Tipoff • Wednesday, 7 p.m.

TV • ROOT Sports

Radio • 97.5 FM, 1280 AM

Records • Jazz 20-36; Suns 33-22

About the Jazz • Derrick Favors returned the lineup Monday, scoring 20 points and helping the Jazz snap a three-game losing skid. … Guard Alec Burks has averaged better than 20 points a game over his last six. … Wednesday is the Jazz’s last home game before a difficult six-game road trip, the longest of the season.

About the Suns • Will be playing in the second game of a back-to-back after facing the Timberwolves on Tuesday night in Phoenix. … Goran Dragic (20 ppg, 6 apg) is having one of the best seasons of his career, though he was left off the All-Star roster. … Gerald Green is averaging 16 points per game in his 37 starts.

Western Conference

W L Pct GB

Oklahoma City 43 14 .754 —

San Antonio 40 16 .714 2½

Houston 39 18 .684 4

L.A. Clippers 39 20 .661 5

Portland 39 18 .684 4

Golden State 35 22 .614 8

Dallas 35 23 .603 8½

Phoenix 33 23 .589 9½

Memphis 31 24 .564 11

Minnesota 28 29 .491 15

Denver 25 31 .446 17½

New Orleans 23 33 .411 19½

Utah 20 36 .357 22½

Sacramento 20 37 .351 23

L.A. Lakers 19 38 .333 24

Note • Top eight teams make playoffs