SAN FRANCISCO – On the night of Jan. 29, Suns forward Dragan Bender didn’t score a point for the third time in a four-game stretch.
Phoenix had just lost to the Memphis Grizzlies, 120-109, and Bender had taken just two shots in 20 minutes, despite the fact the Suns were without Devin Booker and Tyson Chandler. Ever since Bender had become a pro he had been told – directly by the coaches, indirectly by the media – that he needed to be more aggressive on the offensive end.
Earl Watson went so far as to say he wanted Bender to take 10 3-point shots per game.
Like a lot of things Watson said, the request was laced with hyperbole. But after the loss against Memphis, it wasn’t a coach or a reporter saying those things. It was a teammate.
“I think he should take the ball to the basket more and be aggressive,” Troy Daniels said. “Nobody is going to say anything if he takes 10 shots. We want you to be aggressive. When you take two shots it’s tough for us to win.”
Bender got the message.
In Phoenix’s past six games, he’s averaging 13.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 52.6 percent from the field and 48.3 percent from 3-point range. More importantly, he’s averaging 9.5 field-goal attempts over those six games and has taken at least 10 shots in three of the Suns’ past five contests.
To put that in perspective, Bender took more than 10 shots in only two of Phoenix’s first 51 games.
“I should take credit,” Daniels said. “I’m always in his ear. The organization, the coaches want you to be more aggressive so why not? I’ve been on teams where they don’t want to you be aggressive. They want you to be timid and stay in your spot. If you got somebody telling you to do it, just do it.”
With all due respect to Daniels, Bender’s metamorphosis can be traced to three factors.
First, interim coach Jay Triano said he told Bender about 10 days ago that he needed to be more assertive offensively with Booker out because of a hip pointer.
“We’ve asked him to be more aggressive, both physically and offensively shooting the ball,” Triano said. “He’s learning, too. Banging with Julius Randle in Los Angeles, banging with (Nikola) Jokic. I love the fact he’s outsized but he hasn’t stop battling, which is good. That’s going to pay dividends when he does get that beef on his bones.”
Second, Bender has played extensively at center the past two games with Chandler (neck spasms) out, and it’s more difficult for some of the league’s bigger centers to cover Bender at the 3-point line or keep up with him when he puts the ball on the floor. He hit 3 of 5 from 3-point range against Denver’s Jokic on Saturday but also had 10 field-goal attempts from inside the arc.
“We basically had four smaller guys out there with me at the five. I was getting a lot of open shots,” Bender said. “We’re trying to drag a big, whoever it is, out of the paint and move him away from the basket so our guards have more room to operate. And on pick-and-rolls coverage they’re not using to guarding pick-and-pop players. It’s been great.”
Finally, Bender has played at least 26 minutes in each of the past five games and more than 30 minutes in the past three contests. The more playing time he gets, the easier it is to get into the flow of the game.
“It’s something new for me, playing that amount of minutes,” Bender said. “We’ve moved the ball really well the last couple of games and that’s resulted in more shots for me. I’m just trying to move, find the little holes and score.”
Booker (hip), Tyler Ulis (back) and Chandler (neck) all took part in what was a light practice Sunday. Chandler is listed as probable for Monday’s game against Golden State, while Booker and Ulis are listed as questionable.
Daniels and Denver’s Will Barton got into a scrape just three minutes into Saturday’s game but the seeds for the fight were planted during a podcast Barton did with teammate Richard Jefferson following the Suns’ 48-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs last Wednesday.
“I said after Phoenix had lost by 50 to the Spurs we were making jokes and I said after that game, ‘They should throw the whole team away and throw them to the G League,’ ” Barton explained. “You know, it wasn’t anything personal. I would have said that about us if that had happened to us. I was just being funny. But I didn’t know during the game that’s what it was about. I didn’t find out until I came in.
“I was like, ‘They listen to that?’ Whatever. I didn’t remember I even said that. I’m not thinking about that. When we came back in he told me this was what it was about, it makes sense. That’s why he came on like that, which I respect. You’re supposed to take that personal, I respect that. I’d take that personal.”
“They knew why I was mad,” Daniels said. “We were all mad. I felt like it was disrespecting the team so I had to do what I did. I had to send a message to them that we’re not going to take any crap.”
Point guard Josh Gray joined the team for its two-game road trip to Golden State and Utah, which means Phoenix will sign him to a second 10-day contract on Monday. Gray has averaged 6.8 points and 3.0 assists in four games with the Suns.
Suns at Warriors
When: 8:30 p.m.
Where: Oracle Arena, Oakland.
TV/radio: ESPN/FSAZ/KTAR 98.7 FM.
Update: The Suns have lost five straight and 10 of their past 11 but they received a nice jolt Saturday from point guard Elfrid Payton, who had 19 points, nine assists and six rebounds in his debut. Center Tyson Chandler, who has missed the past two games with neck spasms, is expected to play but both Devin Booker (hip) and Tyler Ulis (back) are listed as questionable. The Warriors have struggled as of late – they’re 6-4 in their past 10 games – but they still have the best record in the NBA and have won the past 11 meetings with the Suns.