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Don't count out the Suns in the West playoff chase

Everyone is expecting the Thunder to take the eighth seed in the West, but the Suns are keeping them at bay thanks to a rediscovered commitment to defense and pace.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns are often treated as an afterthought in discussions about the eighth seed and the games the Thunder have to win in order to make the playoffs. It's widely assumed Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will lead Oklahoma City to the postseason, and the team everyone is expecting to fall out of the top eight is Phoenix.

Except, those assumptions are based on the version of the Suns that started the year, ot the one that has won eight of its last 10 games, including Wednesday's victory over the Portland Trail Blazers. For the second straight year, team is for real and isn't going to fade anytime soon.

Yes, the Suns faced a lot of challenges coming into the season. The addition of Isaiah Thomas disrupted their team chemistry: both Thomas and Dragic voiced their complaints about their role and the three point guard corp they formed alongside Eric Bledsoe required everyone to make bigger sacrifices than expected. Channing Frye leaving in free agency was initially a big blow because he was a veteran leader as well as a key cog to the offense. They also weren't surprising teams anymore, like they did last season After winning their two October games, Phoenix was a .500 team in November and December.

Yet things began to change before the new year. After a six-game losing streak, the Suns took on the Hornets on Dec. 17 and won. Three days later, they had to rally in the fourth quarter to beat the lowly Knicks. The day after, they defeated the Wizards comfortably. Something happened during that three-game streak that has had a positive effect on the team.

It has carried over to the new year. Bledsoe upped his scoring and assists numbers, while Markieff Morris found his outside shot. Alex Len has emerged as a legitimate presence inside, something the team desperately needed. As a result, the starting lineup of Bledsoe, Dragic, P.J. Tucker, Morris and Len has outscored opponents by nearly 19 points  per 100 possessions in January, the third best mark for any unit in the month behind only the Hawks and Clippers starters. Dragic, Bledsoe and Thomas learned to coexist, as lineups featuring the three are beating teams by an average of 14.5 points per 100 possessions.

The biggest reason for Phoenix's turnaround is its increasingly-disruptive defense. The Suns are averaging the second highest amount of fast-break points in 2015, trailing only the historically great Warriors. Those transition opportunities have led to the second-highest mark for points in the paint behind the Grizzlies.

It all starts with Bledsoe, who is among the best in the league at getting steals -- he's averaging two a game in January. Markieff Morris is a big weapon there as well, as he has quick hands and can strip both ball-handlers and big men. The team is built to run, with lightning-quick guards leading the break and nimble big men trailing. All that was needed was the defensive spark, and now the Suns have found it.

More familiarity and better defined roles have also been a factor in the surge. After some experimentation, coach Jeff Hornacek is finding combinations that work, and the recent addition of Brandan Wright has provided even more versatility. He's been playing Wright next to Miles Plumlee at times to juice up the defense in bench lineups while Thomas and Gerald Green provide the scoring. The quality depth -- one of Phoenix's biggest strengths -- was always there, but now they are finding ways to leverage it in the right way by using fresh bodies to pressure on defense and run teams out of the building. They're playing at the fourth-highest pace in the NBA since the new year, averaging over two possessions more than in 2014.

Whether they are good enough to hold off the Thunder and keep the No. 8 seed remains to be seen. The move for Dion Waiters seems to be paying off and Oklahoma City is ready to make another upgrade if the trade talks regarding Brook Lopez are any indication. But the Suns could swing a deal too using some of their many attractive trade assets. As soon as a starting point guard falls to injury, teams will be asking about Thomas. With Len's improvement and the addition of Wright, Plumlee is on the block. Phoenix also has youngsters Archie Goodwin, Tyler Ennis and T.J. Warren and all of their draft picks going forward, plus a selection from the Lakers, which is top-five protected this year and top-three protected next season if the Lakers get it back.

There are reasons to be skeptical if Phoenix's run can hold. Their schedule has been one of the easiest in the league and it will be interesting to see if their new-found defensive competence lasts or if it's just a mirage. And even still, the Thunder do look like the team that will make the postseason as the eight seed.

Yet the Suns have made exceeding expectations a habit of late. They were supposed to be terrible last season and almost made the playoffs. After their bad start this year, everyone left them for dead.

Yet here they are with a three-game cushion over the Thunder and victories in 14 of their last 18 games. Count them out at your own risk.