The Suns’ January six-game trip that included stops in Boston, New York and Charlotte started their tailspin, their four-game losing trip earlier this month knocked them to the edge of the playoff race and now this current trip could put the final nail in their coffin.
And if the Suns want to have the possibility of thinking about catching a team other than Dallas, who leads Phoenix by three games after dropping a home game to Denver last night, than they better win tonight in Utah.
This will be a huge one for both teams because the Jazz will clinch a playoff spot for all intents and purposes if they go up 5 1/2 games on the Suns at this juncture of the season with the conference record tiebreaker safely in tow.
By contrast, a 3 1/2 lead and the head-to-head tiebreaker in possession of the Suns could make things interesting with Phoenix only facing three more good teams among their final nine games and the Jazz hitting the road for six more games against West contenders, contests in which Utah is 0-9 in thus far this year.
It’s really something how different the Jazz are in EnergySolutions Arena (or the Delta Center for those of you who are old school like that) and on the road, although Utah played very good Wednesday night in Phoenix but just did not execute as well as the Suns did down the stretch.
The Jazz boast a 30-6 record at home, the best home mark of any team east of Los Angeles, but they are just 14-21 on the road, worst of any West contender, including the Suns.
When I asked Suns head coach Alvin Gentry about what he makes of Utah’s staggering home/road splits, he first started to rationalize it being possibly because of a dense road schedule when Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko missed time earlier this season, but that couldn’t completely account for it since those guys missed so many games they surely missed a good number of home games as well.
Then Gentry added that this was the case last year as well, when the splits were even more ridiculous. The Jazz were 37-4 in the building formerly known as the Delta Center, making them the best home team in the NBA, yet just 17-24 away from the friendly confines, tied for the worst among West playoff teams last year.
“It’s so hard to say,” Gentry said, searching for an answer. “I have no idea why because they’re such a great halfcourt execution team.”
Gentry added that the Jazz do run more at home fueled by a raucous home crowd, but whatever the reason the Suns will more than have their work cut out for them tonight.
Matt Barnes’ defense will be a key once again after the much bigger and stronger LaMarcus Aldridge torched him for a season-high 29 on Thursday, and in Wednesday’s Jazz game Utah tried to force feed Okur on Barnes to varying results, as the 6-foot-11 performer shot just 6-for-17.
The Suns don’t want Shaq chasing Okur around the perimeter, so they will live with a major mismatch with Barnes, meaning the rest of the defense must be active to prevent Okur from just backing him down for easy deuces. On the flip side, that’s not really Okur’s game, so maybe the Suns are better off keeping him away from the perimeter.
A major team effort all around will likely be necessary for Phoenix to accomplish the colossal task of taking a must-win contest in Utah, but the Suns’ playoff life may depend on it.