Watching the start and end of Suns games last season, many fans had a right to bemoan the defense.
In between, the Suns' reserves were using their new opportunities to start carving a new identity as a defensive unit.
Louis Amundson's regular court time did not come until January, and Jared Dudley, Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez were not entrusted until Alvin Gentry took over as coach in February.
Now, the long-standing goal of strengthening the roster depth has come closer to fruition, creating a different look off the bench with youth and defense.
"Our goal has to be that we have enough confidence in those guys that we don't have (point guard) Steve (Nash) and those guys trying to finish games with 11 1/2 minutes to go," Gentry said. "We've got to have those guys finishing games at six minutes, where they are fresh and ready, and they can really overextend the last six minutes. It's really tough to play 12 hard minutes of basketball."
All the reserves are returning Suns, except for rookies Earl Clark and Taylor Griffin. Of the projected rotation subs, only Leandro Barbosa was with the team before last season. Of the eight reserves, the Suns drafted six.
Each addition was made with a significant role in mind (Dragic to back up Nash, Lopez to be a big pick-and-roll defender and paint protector and Clark to defend athletic power forwards). Dudley (acquired by trade) and Amundson (2008 free agent) gave the Suns more than expected and created the chance for the team to get better defensively.
"We'd like that second unit to have an identity where they come in and create a little havoc on the defensive end, play extremely hard and not just try to maintain but maybe try to increase the lead," Gentry said. "They did that for us last year in a few games. We hope they are still playing at that level so we can count on them to do that."
With Dudley, Amundson, Dragic and Lopez in their first year with the Suns last season, the bench had the 12th best plus-minus rating, seventh-most forced turnovers and ninth-most steals among NBA benches, according to 82games.com. It has to be an opportunistic group to keep up the scoring, but the Suns feel each returning player improved his offense.
"I hope we'll play like last season's last two months," Dragic said. "We played really well. We have to push the first unit. We push them in practice. In games, we have to keep the rhythm and push the other team for starters to rest. The second unit has to be prepared, focused and play our game. We have to pressure the opponent all over the court and score easy baskets."
• Gentry, on the team after 11 practices, a scrimmage and a game in 10 days: "I'm happy with the progress we've been making. We've got to eliminate some of the mental mistakes. That's the thing that's been a little bit disturbing. We've got to get to the spots we're supposed to get to and execute the things we need to do. They're working hard. The mental part, we'll just have to work on."
• The last of the 7,000 free upper-level tickets for Friday's Game 5 of the WNBA Finals were given away Thursday. Lower-level seats are available for purchase. Nash, Grant Hill and Amaré Stoudemire sponsored the giveaway.