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National attention on the way for a Suns team that’s earned it in recent weeks

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Suns owner Robert Sarver made a rare appearance at Alvin Gentry’s pre-game media session before Sunday night’s game against the Rockets, which the head coach traditionally holds in a very relaxed atmosphere in his office.

Sarver was in good spirits and wanted to joke around a little, and with the way his team has played over the past month or so, his mood was completely understandable.

Curious to know the various media outlets that were there in attendance, Sarver walked the medium-sized room, looking at the credentials hanging around the necks of the assembled press, taking them in his hand and reading them aloud.

When he got to mine, since I was one of the few people in the room representing national coverage, Sarver decided to ask some questions. He was very good-natured while grilling me, and there were plenty of laughs while this was going on. But he wanted some answers.

“NBC. How come you don’t show us on anything,” he challenged.

I reminded him I’m here for just about every home game.

“I know. But nationally, nothing. It’s like we’re not in the league right now,” he exclaimed.

It’s coming, I told him. (And that’s true: It was the plan anyway if the Suns were able to beat the short-handed Rockets.)

“Does anything get covered?!”

Plenty gets covered, I told him.

“Where?”

I promised to send him the link — one which will be on its way directly after the Suns took care of business and beat the Rockets 99-86 to move above .500 for the first time all season, and within just a half-game of the eighth and final playoff seed in the Western Conference standings.

Just a month ago, a climb back into the race for a spot in the postseason — especially this quickly — seemed like an impossibility. Back on Feb. 17, Phoenix was a dismal 12-19, had lost four straight and five out of six, and looked more like a team planning a trip to the draft lottery than one interested in making a run to the playoffs.

Since then, however, Phoenix has won 11 of 14, and finds itself relevant and realistically looking at a postseason chance for the first time since training camp. The only team with a better mark is the Chicago Bulls, who went 12-2 during that stretch, but who also have the best record in the league at 37-10.

You could see those stretches coming from that Chicago team. But this run from these Suns wasn’t anywhere close to being expected.

As the players and coaches have been asked to explain the sudden success in recent days, the immeasurable metric of chemistry is the one that comes up again and again.

“I really think the chemistry has just come together,” Gentry said. “And I don’t know how that happens, and I don’t know if anyone can really tell you how that happens. But I think our guys feel really good about themselves.”

One way it happens is that guys who find themselves out of the rotation — whether for one game or for a few weeks — stay ready.  They don’t cause problems in the locker room by griping about playing time that wasn’t earned, or opportunities that weren’t there to be given. They remain professional, and support their teammates who do get those chances on a consistent basis.

“I don’t know where I’ve had a team where it’s been this good,” Gentry said of his bench players not complaining about missed minutes. “Guys, I’m telling you, it’s really tough to sit over there and not play. And you can make it miserable on the coaching staff or on your teammates, and none of those guys do that here. None of those guys do that.

“I think the big thing for them is that they always feel like at some stage, they’ll get an opportunity again.”

Michael Redd, who’s had his fair share of DNP-CDs this season but broke out for 25 points in Sunday’s win over Houston, echoed Gentry’s sentiment, while offering a reason why.

“Because the agenda is winning,” he said. “Shannon Brown’s won two championships, he knows what it takes to win. Grant (Hill) and Steve (Nash) have won. I’ve been in some winning situations. When you have guys who have experienced winning, it kind of permeates throughout the team. And the team kind of follows suit, and guys prepare themselves.

“We genuinely want to see each other succeed, and that’s big.”

The bench unit as a whole has been the key to the Suns recent surge. Early in the season, as Gentry struggled to find the right rotations, the second unit would allow large leads to disappear, and their ineptitude would force the starters to play long minutes, leaving them gassed in the fourth quarters of tight games.

Lately, the consistency has been there to the point where Gentry has found a competent 10-man rotation where the five guys he uses off the bench can each function for 17 minutes or so a night.

“Amazing,” Nash said of the way the bench has played. “Obviously it was a special one (last Thursday) in L.A., (when Phoenix beat the Clippers with Nash and Hill out) but since the All-Star break really, the bench has been really good, and it’s kind of turned our season around.”

Shannon Brown has provided perhaps the most consistent spark off the bench, and he told NBCSports.com that chemistry comes easily when everyone has a hand in the team’s overall success.

“Whenever you come together as a team and win, and win consistently, where everybody contributes, that’s the main goal,” he said. “You want everybody that’s playing to go out there and contribute in the way that they know how, and that’s what we’ve been doing.

“We feel good about ourselves, we’ve got a little win streak going, and we’re making a real conscious effort to try to make it to the playoffs.”

Playoffs were the goal in Phoenix before the season began, a mantra that was recited repeatedly by everyone from top to bottom throughout the organization. After the painfully-slow start the team got off to by going 7-9 in its first 16 home games, it’s once again a topic on the table thanks to this recent run of victories.

Nash was asked after Friday’s game if the results of this homestand were beyond his expectations.

“It’s getting there,” Nash said. “Maybe not even just the home stand, but the season, where we’re beginning to exceed what people thought of us.”

As the Suns continue to exceed expectations, the national media will catch up. Maybe not quite yet, though, considering Phoenix does play its next two games back-to-back on the road in Miami and Orlando. But if the way the Suns have played during this stretch continues, while the qualities of confidence, chemistry and “cohesion” (as Nash likes to say) that have finally started to show themselves on the court remain in plain sight, then Phoenix has a completely legitimate shot at making that coveted trip to the playoffs.

And that will net Mr. Sarver all of the national coverage he desires.

51Q: Can Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson get blood from a stone in Brooklyn?

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 20:  Rondae Hollis-Jefferson #24 of the Brooklyn Nets reacts after a foul is called against him during the second half at TD Garden on November 20, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off). Today:

Can Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson get blood from a stone in Brooklyn?

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

For Sean Marks, the new GM of the Brooklyn Nets, the first steps last February was to buy out Andrea Bargnani and waive Joe Johnson, then sign D-League guard Sean Kilpatrick in a quest for undervalued talent.

No team in all the NBA is in a worse rebuilding situation than the Brooklyn Nets. In their owner-pushed quest to open a new building with a splash a few years back, the Nets traded young players and control of their draft picks for expensive players on the back ends of their careers (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Johnson). When that fell apart as everyone could see it would, the Nets were left without the tools for a quick rebuild. They don’t control their own first-round pick until 2019.

This is a long, slow journey of 1,000 miles.

The question today is: Can Marks and his new coach Kenny Atkinson squeeze more wins out of this team while making that journey? The Nets won just 21 games last season.

They should win a few more this season — 25? 28? — and they should be more competitive. Certainly, they will be more entertaining. However, real change is going to take time. And patience — we’re looking at you, Mikhail Prokhorov.

The Nets have one good young player who should be part of the future core: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. He needs to become more confident with his jumper, but he is a long, athletic wing who can get to the rim on one end and defend on the other. He should thrive in a more uptempo Atkinson system. If he can stay healthy this season and take a step forward (as expected of second-year players), the Nets get a little better.

Then the Nets have some solid veterans around him. Brook Lopez is still one of the better offensive centers in the NBA, and while the trade waters were tested (and will be again), Lopez remains a Net.

Marks added veteran point guard Jeremy Lin to the mix — Atkinson was an assistant coach to Mike D’Antoni in New York during the Linsanity era, and he knows how to get the most out of him. The Nets brought other vets on the roster such as Luis Scola, Greivis Vasquez, and Randy Foye. Trevor Booker is still on the roster. There is rookie Caris LeVert to develop.

All of this should make the Nets considerably more entertaining (they were the hardest team in the NBA to watch last season) a little better. They should win a few more games. The issues keeping them from making any real leap begin with this was the second worst defensive team in the NBA last season and adding guys like Lin, Vasquez, and Scola to the roster is not going to improve that end. Add to that the fact this team has no true alpha players, plus a lack of depth, they have a lot of fringe players trying to establish themselves (which makes cohesion on the court difficult), they have almost no home court advantage, and it’s hard to be optimistic about the short term.

But Marks and Atkinson know it’s not about the short term.

Hopefully, ownership understands that as well, stays back, and lets the men do their jobs. Find some young talent, trade for what they can, and develop it. Progress will be incremental for years.

Marks has made a lot of good moves as GM, but no quick fixes are coming to Brooklyn. They don’t even have enough picks to trust the process. Progress is going to be incremental.

Marks and Atkinson may get a drop or two of blood from the stone — if you consider five more wins some blood — but don’t expect miracles.

Expect a long journey — and Marks to keep them walking on the right path. Which is all that can be reasonably asked.

Report: Pelicans aggressively seeking ‘one of the higher level free agent guards left’

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The Pelicans will reportedly work out Lance Stephenson, and whether or not they’re serious about him, they seem serious about somebody at his position.

Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders:

I’m not sure who qualifies as “‘one of the higher level free agent guards left” other than J.R. Smith, who seems extremely likely to return to the Cavaliers. (The Pelicans don’t have cap space to pursue Smith, anyway.)

Norris Cole, whom New Orleans already renounced? Mario Chalmers coming off a torn Achilles? Kevin Martin who did little with the Spurs? Kirk Hinrich who’s over the hill? Andre Miller who’s five years older?

Making this harder to decipher: The Pelicans have 15 players with guaranteed salaries, most of whom signed this offseason. How will they make room for an additional guard on their regular-season roster, which is capped at 15 players? They don’t have money or roster spot to lure a quality guard, even if you grade quality on a curve for who’s left unsigned.

Does this signal another shoe to drop in New Orleans?

Former Magic player Keith Appling charged with four more felonies after third arrest in four months

Orlando Magic's Keith Appling (15) makes a shot in front of Philadelphia 76ers' Jerami Grant (39) and Nerlens Noel (4) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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Former Orlando Magic and Michigan State player Keith Appling was arrested for the third time in four months.

The latest arrest brings four new felony charges.

Elisha Anderson of the Detroit Free Press:

The new charges Appling faces are carrying a concealed weapon, resisting and obstructing police, third-degree fleeing and eluding and felony firearm.

Detroit police stopped Appling, 24, on a traffic violation Sunday while he was driving in the area of 7 Mile and Russell about 9:15 p.m, prosecutors said in a news release. A police officer reached in the car to get his identification and Appling is accused of driving off while the officer’s hand was still in the window.

Authorities say Appling threw a Gucci bag from his car. Police found the bag, which had Appling’s name on it and handgun inside, near the area of the initial stop.

Appling was a fringe NBA player. It’s a shame his basketball career probably won’t work out, because he sounds like a really bad criminal.

Tossing your gun in a personalized Gucci bag? Really?

Rutgers uses NBA incomes of Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Andre Drummond, Steven Adams to pitch recruits

AUBURN HILLS, MI - MAY 24:  Ray Allen #20 of the Boston Celtics goes up for a shot over Richard Hamilton #32 of the Detroit Pistons in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2008 NBA Playoffs on May 24, 2008 at the Palace at Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan.  The Celtics won 94-80.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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College men’s basketball teams earn vast revenue on the backs of players while conspiring to pay those players no more than a scholarship and some expenses. In lieu of the market dictating player salaries, that revenue is funneled to administrators and coaches – like Rutgers’ Steve Pikiell, who earns $1.6 million per year.

But the money in basketball is real, and college players want a taste. So, many coaches try to sell players that they’ll prepare them for the NBA, where they can make millions.

Which led to this Rutgers tweet featuring former Connecticut players Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Andre Drummond and former Pittsburgh player Steven Adams:

The heck?

Rutgers’ only NBA players in the last two decades were Hamady N’Diaye and Quincy Douby. So, the Scarlet Knights got creative.

An assistant on Pikiell’s staff was an assistant at UConn when Allen and Hamilton played there. Another was an assistant when Drummond was a Huskie. Yet another was a Pitt assistant during Adams’ time.

Just when I thought college teams couldn’t get any cheaper when it comes to their players, here comes Rutgers using its barely earned currency in recruiting.

Connecticut took notice:

Here’s an idea: Instead of squabbling over who deserves credit for getting players paid later, use some of that revenue to pay players now.

(hat tip: Mark Sandritter of SB Nation)