PHOENIX (AP) — After victories over Portland and Oklahoma City, the Phoenix Suns have cemented their status as the NBA's most surprising team.
Now comes a three-games-in-four-days trip that could make or break the Suns' playoff chances.
Entering Tuesday's play, with five games to go, the Suns held the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, a game ahead of Memphis and a half-game behind No. 7 Dallas.
A team predicted to be among the worst in the league stands at 46-31, with first-year coach Jeff Hornacek overseeing a high-energy bunch led by the dynamic backcourt of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. The mercurial but often spectacular Gerald Green is also in a career year for a player who had bounced around the league with little success.
"I'm proud of these guys, of how they've battled all year," Hornacek said before the team left town Tuesday, "of having expectations of winning less than 20 games. They've been determined to try to prove that wrong all year. For us coaches, we're just proud of the fact that they play hard every night, they try to do what we ask, they lay it out there."
The Suns play at New Orleans on Wednesday night then face San Antonio on Friday and Dallas on Saturday.
Phoenix has won eight of 10, but one of those losses, a blowout to the Lakers, still haunts them. Hornacek expects no such flat performances on this trip.
"We'd just come off winning those six in a row and they thought we were just going to show up and win," he said. "I think they know that's not going to happen on this trip. I don't think there'll be any sort of letdown from winning the other night (over Oklahoma City) because they know what's at stake."
Dragic said the team can't afford to look past New Orleans.
"The first one, that's a huge one," he said. "If you win the first one on the road, then you kind of set the tone for the rest of those games on the road trip. We have to get that one, then the next two are the real games for us."
The last two victories over playoff-bound teams were critical in keeping Phoenix in the playoff hunt. At Portland, the Suns used a big fourth quarter to win. Then Sunday at home against Oklahoma City, Phoenix went on a 10-0 run in the final minutes, after the Thunder had taken the lead, to win 122-115.
The catalyst for that victory was P.J. Tucker, one of this band of castoffs and ex-reserves and a team leader with his constant hustle and strong defense. He scored a career-high 22 points, including 4 of 5 3-pointers.
The Suns' late-season surge has coincided with the return of the energizer Bledsoe after a four-month absence while recovering from knee surgery. Phoenix is 26-12 with Bledsoe, 20-19 without him.
His return is especially helpful to Dragic, who had to carry the load in Bledsoe's absence.
"I played the full season. It's kind of tiring, a lot of games," Dragic said, "but when he came back I could take a little bit of a break. That helps my body, to be more fresh and be more focused. It's much easier playing with him than without him."
If this team has a star player, it's Dragic, who in a breakout season is averaging 20.5 points per game, shooting 50.8 percent from the field, 41.7 percent from 3-point range.
Hornacek said Dragic sorely needed Bledsoe back.
"We were asking Goran to do a lot of stuff and I think he was getting worn down," Hornacek said. "With Eric out there, it's taken some of the load off him. He can feel fresh. We can pick on the mismatches, whoever we think has an advantage at that spot. It's enabled him maybe to give him a little more energy. The way Goran plays, he lays it out there all time, so that helps."
Then there's Green, who is averaging a career-high 15.8 points per game and is capable of huge scoring nights, such as his 41-point outburst against Oklahoma City on March 20. He can blow opponents away when he gets on one of his "I'll shoot anything and make it" streaks.
Off the bench, Markieff Morris has been outstanding, with twin brother Marcus providing some crucial help, too.
"We don't have any big superstar marquee players on the team," Tucker said, "so it's us like a band of brothers to make the playoffs, shock the world. Nobody thought we'd be in this position."