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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.

J.B. Bickerstaff calls Rockets ‘broken team,’ ‘fragmented bunch’

Houston Rockets interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff rubs his head in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Houston. The Wizards won 123-122. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
AP Photo/Pat Sullivan
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Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff has been unafraid to sharply assess his team.

But after last night’s loss to the Trail Blazers – Houston’s third straight defeat and sixth in eight games – Bickerstaff kicked up the rhetoric even further.

Bickerstaff, via Calvin Watkins of ESPN:

“We’re broken,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s that simple. We’re a broken team, and we all need to use this break to figure out how we’re going to impact change. If we don’t want to impact change, then we need to be made aware of that, too, and we’ll go in a different direction.

“We can’t continue to go out and play this way. It’s easy to see it’s a fragmented bunch. You can’t win that way.”

This is why Dwight Howard is on the trade block. The Rockets are so incohesive, there’s no simple solution in sight. This increasingly looks like a lost season for Houston, which should emphasize future planning – like dealing Howard, who can become an unrestricted free agent at age 30 this summer.

Yet, the Rockets are just a half game from playoff position. They obviously dreamed much bigger when the season began, but at this point, merely making the postseason should qualify as a success.

It’s Bickerstaff’s job to get them there, no matter how unlikely. He has certainly shown little fear in trying, whether it’s giving these quotes or pulling all five starters simultaneously shortly into a game. He’s trying to put his mark on this team.

The players just aren’t responding, not more than periodically, at least. From James Harden down, nobody plays with the requisite focus and energy.

Nothing in Bickerstaff’s assessment is surprising. It’s just surprising he said it so bluntly publicly.

Then again, that’s nothing compared to what veteran Houston guard Jason Terry said. Eric Ringering of 750 The Game:

https://twitter.com/ringering45/status/697664478993756164

Devin Booker to replace Nerlens Noel in Rising Stars at All-Star Weeekend

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker reacts after hitting a 3-point shot against the San Antonio Spurs during the third quarter of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
AP Photo/Rick Scuteri
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Sixers big man Nerlens Noel — who has looked much improved this season once Ish Smith was feeding him the rock on offense — sat out the Sixers game Wednesday night due to tendonitis in his right knee. After he missed his rookie season with knee issues, you can understand why the Sixers want him to be cautious.

Noel is going to sit out All-Star Weekend as well — he had been scheduled to play in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night, but he is going to sit that out and Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns will take his place, the league has announced (Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic broke that story).

Booker has been one of the few bright spots for the Suns this season, averaging 10.6 points a game and shooting 40.3 percent from three.

He will play for the USA in the World vs. USA format of the Rising Stars Challenge (the former rookie/sophomore game, featuring first and second year players).

With Emmanuel Mudiay replacing Patrick Beverley, NBA reveals Skills Challenge bracket

Houston Rockets' Patrick Beverley (2) knocks the ball away from Denver Nuggets' Emmanuel Mudiay (0) in the first half of a NBA basketball game Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, in Houston. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
AP Photo/Pat Sullivan
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Out: Defending champion Patrick Beverley.

In: Emmanuel Mudiay Emmanuel Mudiay.

The NBA confirmed the Rockets guard would miss the Skills Challenge and that Mudiay would replace him. The league also release the bracket:

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My picks:

Quarterfinals

Semifinals

  • Isaiah Thomas over C.J. McCollum
  • Anthony Davis over Draymond Green

Final

  • Isaiah Thomas over Anthony Davis

NBA suspends Hassan Whiteside for elbowing Boban Marjanovic’s head

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Hassan Whiteside lost his cool and elbowed Boban Marjanovic in the head Tuesday.

The Heat center received a flagrant 2 and an ejection, and now he’s getting the rest of his punishment.

NBA release:

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside has been suspended one game without pay for throwing an elbow and making contact with the head of San Antonio Spurs center Boban Marjanovic, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

The incident, for which Whiteside was assessed a Flagrant 2 and ejected, occurred with 9:35 remaining in the fourth quarter of the Spurs’ 119-101 win over the Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena on Feb. 9.

Whiteside will serve his suspension when Miami plays the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 19 at Philips Arena.

The suspension will cost Whiteside $8,921. As a result, the Heat – in line to become the first team in NBA history to pay the repeater luxury-tax rate – trim their impending tax bill by $24,534.

More importantly for Whiteside, this will be a strike against him for teams considering offering him a big contract in free agency this summer.