With 17.2 seconds left in the Suns 123-116 loss to the Houston Rockets on Sunday, coach Earl Watson called timeout. Three seconds later, down nine points, Watson called another timeout.
It was obvious what Watson was doing. He was hoping to give rookie guard Tyler Ulis a couple of more opportunities to record his first career triple-double. That didn’t happen – Ulis finished with a career-high 34 points, nine rebounds and nine assists – but his performance was the lasting impression from the Suns’ 12th straight loss.
The loss was significant. Coupled with the Los Angeles Lakers’ win over the Memphis Grizzlies earlier in the day, it gave the Suns the worst record in the Western Conference. Phoenix is a half-game ahead of Los Angeles, which has played one fewer game. If the teams finish tied, a coin flip would determine the Nos. 2 and 3 positions — and the number of ping-pong balls — in the May 16 NBA draft lottery.
But back to Ulis. The 5-foot-9 Kentucky product has been opening eyes around the NBA with his play lately, averaging 12.9 points and 9.1 assists in 10 starts since Eric Bledsoe was shelved for the season. He had five double-doubles in the stretch and a 3.96 assist-to-turnover ratio.
But he took his game to another level Sunday, in part because he looked to be a scorer as well as a facilitator. Playing 45 minutes in the back end of a back-to-back, Ulis made 15 of 22 shots, only the second time this season he’s had at least 20 field-goal attempts in a game. He put up 24 shots against Detroit on March 19.
“The coaching staff wants me to be more aggressive,” Ulis said. “I usually look to pass coming off screens and things like that, but I wanted to pick my spots and shoot.”
Being selfish doesn’t come easy for Ulis. He said coaches have told him his entire life to look for his shot more.
“I’m kind of a pass-first point guard,” he said. “Sometimes it gets the best of me.”
Watson wasn’t surprised by Ulis’ production, saying he saw flashes of it in the Suns’ summer league.
“I knew Tyler was pretty special quickly,” Watson said. “Tyler had an amazing game, one assist and one rebound away from a triple double. At his size and as a rookie point guard, that’s great numbers.”
Watson wasn’t the only coach impressed with Ulis. Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, who knows something about point guards, said, “He’s good. The guy can move and shoot and score the basketball. Really score.”
Ulis’ performance wasn’t the only positive development in the loss. Rookie forward Dragan Bender, playing in his first game since undergoing ankle surgery on Feb. 8, played 14 minutes and had nine points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots.
Bender showed off his offensive versatility, twice backing down smaller Rockets defenders in the lane for jump hooks and then running the floor and dunking after a feed from Devin Booker. He also buried a 3-point shot early in the second quarter.
Bender was obviously winded – he played just five minutes in the second half – but Watson liked what he saw.
“He’s just a straight basketball player,” Watson said. “He goes out there, he just plays the game. He takes what the defense gives him. The 3-point shot, hook shots around the basket versus a smaller guy is something he has to get comfortable doing.
“He looks very comfortable, the touch is there. So that was great for him.”
Bender, who hadn’t even scrimmaged before Sunday’s game, said he felt great and didn’t have any problems with his ankle.
“For me as a rookie, this time before the end of the season is really important to come back and get some experience before we go home,” Bender said. “If you can play the rest of the season, that’s the right way to do it.”