TORONTO -- On the morning of Dec. 31, the Phoenix Suns were sixth in the Western Conference, winners of 10 of their last 12 and eight games over .500. After preseason projections put them in the basement, they were the best story in the NBA. Point guard Eric Bledsoe, their prized offseason addition who was pushing their pace perfectly, suffered right knee pain the night before. The team was calling it a sprain.
Soon came the bad news. Bledsoe had a torn meniscus. It required surgery. Happy New Year.
"We were looking at, ‘Are we ever going to even survive and be .500 while he's gone?'" Phoenix head coach Jeff Hornacek said.
They did. Bledsoe returned last Wednesday with the Suns at 36-27. Goran Dragic played like a superstar, which kept them afloat, but they'd lost six of their previous nine games and were down to ninth in the cruel Western Conference. His teammates were thankful to get him back right when they needed a jolt of energy.
"He's just so fast, man, and so strong," Phoenix swingman Gerald Green said. "To me, I think he's a mini-LeBron as far as being able to go coast to coast, take contact and still finish. I think that's where he's so underrated is his ability to finish at the basket with contact over high hands, over 7-foot guys. He just has ability to get up, take the contact, still stay in the air, finish with either left hand, right hand. That's amazing, once you get that. He's just unstoppable at times."
Having split four games since Bledsoe returned, the Suns are 1.5 games behind the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies and 2.5 back of the Dallas Mavericks with 15 to go. Phoenix can't afford to take time adjusting to his presence. The Suns have limited his minutes to 28.5 per game so far, but when he sees the opponent making a run, he's anxious to get back on the court.
"It's hard to tell sometimes," Hornacek said. "Sometimes I ask him, 'Are you tired, do you want to come out?' He goes, ‘No, I'm not tired.'"
Since his return, Bledsoe is averaging 14 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists. His shot's been off and conditioning is always an issue coming back from an injury. Bledsoe will be a restricted free agent this summer but he's not holding back, looking as blazing fast as ever with the ball in his hands.
"Like he says, the only thing he's missing is his wind," Suns guard Ish Smith said.
When Bledsoe was sidelined, he handled himself like he was determined to get back to the All-Star form he displayed earlier in the season.
"He was great," Smith said. "He was always there with us on every flight. Some guys, they stay back. Not him, he was there. All the road games that we played, all the home games, always on the bench. And then working out early in the morning, pushing, resting when he has to be. Doing all the things he was supposed to do to get back to the level he is right now. I saw responsibility in him, resiliency."
Before the injury, Bledsoe averaged 18 points per game, shot 35 percent from the three-point line and attacked the basket as relentlessly as anyone in the league. His success was eye-opening.
Bledsoe looked great as a super-sub for the Los Angeles Clippers last year, but results were inconsistent when he filled in for Chris Paul as a starter. Bledsoe put pressure on opposing ballhandlers and defenses, but his shooting and his ability to keep his teammates happy were question marks.
While Hornacek knew he was good, the coach didn't know Bledsoe could see the floor this well. Watching the 6'1, 195-pound Bledsoe drive, draw in defenders and and kick the ball out to one of the Suns' many shooters, it's hard to believe there were doubts about his ability to play point guard.
"When I was starting for [Paul], it didn't feel like I was running the team," Bledsoe said. "It felt like I was just a replacement. But now, I'm fully confident."
There was also the fit issue. Phoenix decided to start him alongside fellow point guard Dragic, and Hornacek told the team Bledsoe would bring the ball up off makes. Either one of them could handle it in transition. No one knew how well it would work.
In September, Dragic flew straight from EuroBasket in his home country of Slovenia to Suns training camp. Needing rest and recovery time, he was given numerous off-days. That wasn't ideal for the guards getting to know one another's game, but he and Bledsoe talked things through and they figured it out quickly.
"I would say probably around 10 games into the season, I started feeling like we can do something special," Dragic said.
Bledsoe said he anticipated no problems because Dragic was unselfish and a competitor. The two of them had near-identical statistics prior to the knee injury.
"I don't know how many times it happened that he stole the ball, I ran ahead and he passed to me and it was an easy layup," Dragic said. "He makes my job much easier. Hopefully I make his job easier, too, and it's just we're just having fun. That's the main thing probably this season."
All the fun they're having is partially due to Hornacek, who wants Phoenix to get up and down the floor. Far from a micromanager on offense, he expects his team to play hard defensively and trusts his playmakers to create without looking over at the bench. As much as any coach in the league, he's given his players freedom.
"Sometimes I think he gives us too much," Bledsoe said with a laugh. "But for the most part, you'll love to play for a guy like [Hornacek] because he don't hold you back. Most coaches, some coaches can hold you back, tell you to do this, do that all the time and you're always out there wondering what coach might think and all that stuff."
For a player like Bledsoe, known for his creativity in the pick and roll and his almost unmatched ability in the open court, Hornacek's style couldn't be better. Suns general manager Ryan McDonough has already said he intends to commit to Bledsoe long-term in the summer.
Bledsoe's efficiency and improvement as a floor general might be even more exciting for Suns fans than his blocks and dunks. He's already proven he's a premier point guard; now it's just a matter of getting back there. Phoenix has a soft schedule the rest of the month -- five non-playoff teams, plus Washington and Atlanta -- and then things get tricky. In April, the Suns will face six of the West's best, including the two directly above them in the standings.
If Bledsoe is at full strength, they'll have a chance to sneak into the postseason and scare the hell out of a high seed. If not, Phoenix will likely be forced to focus on the future. With Bledsoe in the fold, that future looks pretty bright.