At 7-1 (for the first time since the 2000-2001 season), the Suns have thus far made my preseason predictions look downright terrible. That much I can admit.
But tonight’s game with the New Orleans Hornets will be a very telling game. It is the first major Western Conference opponent for the Suns.
Yes, they beat the Celtics and it was very impressive. But the Hornets are the kind of team the Suns could be battling for a playoff spot later in the season (unless they keep winning the way they are now). And one statistic seems to stack this one in favor of the Hornets: New Orleans has won six of the last seven meetings between these two teams, losing the most recent in April of this year.
The Suns’ Achilles’ heel against the Hornets in those meetings has been defense — no surprise there. The Hornets have averaged 111.9 ppg to the Suns 105.0 ppg. These are two high-energy teams with similar styles, and that will create an interesting matchup.
Both teams have raised their possessions per game numbers so far, the Suns from 97.6 to 99.0 and the Hornets from 89.4 to 93.4. Clearly both teams have picked up the pace.
But the Suns’ defense this season has actually been impressive. They limited Boston’s offensive juggernaut and smothered the Heat in the second half of that matchup.
The Hornets’ defense, on the other hand, has been laughable. They are currently allowing 102.6 points per game after yielding 94.3 last season. If that keeps up, they could eclipse their previous franchise high mark of 103.4 ppg during the 1995-1996 season (the team was still in Charlotte then — remember that?).
And to make matters worse for the Hornets, they are 1-4 on the road this season. The Suns, on the other hand, are 2-0 at home and have won 11 straight at US Airways Center, dating back to last season.
But this one is hard to call. The Hornets have the players to be one of the league’s elite. Chris Paul is one of the NBA’s best players, without a doubt. And he is having a stellar season so far. He’s averaging 26.3 points, 9.8 assists and shooting 63 percent from the field. CP3 also leads the league in 3-point shooting percentage among players with at least 10 attempts.
Paul is also on a hot streak the last three games, compiling 37 assists to just two turnovers during that stretch. Most recently he poured in 24 points and 10 assists in a 112-84 win over the lowly Clippers on Monday.
But there’s one crucial statistical area where he has yet to make his mark: MVPs. His opponent in tonight’s game has two of those.vs. Chris Paul is no doubt one of the best point guard matchups in the NBA today. Despite scoring less this season, Nash’s numbers are still very impressive.
Captain Canada is pulling 18.3 points and 12.9 assists a game. More important than his numbers is Nash’s ability this season to take over games like the two-time MVP he is.
In the 12 head-to-head performances between Paul and Nash, they have each won six.
has been on fire as well, averaging 28.3 points and 7.3 rebounds in the Suns’ last three games. Amare Stoudemire has obviously been big as well this season, averaging 19.0 points and 8.5 rebounds.
The Hornets’ starting lineup is quite possibly one of the most under-achieving lineups in the NBA. Peja Stojakovic is averaging only 9.8 ppg and center Emeka Okafor only 10.9. Okafor is pulling 10.5 rebounds a game, however. This year it’s been all Paul and David West, who’s notching 16.1 ppg.
But in an Isiah Thomas-esque move (he actually gave Eddy Curry a $60 million deal!), the Hornets signed James Posey last offseason for four years and around $25 million. He is making more than $6 million this season and scoring 3.3 ppg and pulling in a whopping 2.9 rebounds a game. Ouch.
As long as the Suns can limit turnovers (second-worst in the league with a plus 2.9 differential) and manage some decent free throw numbers (currently 27th in the NBA with 69.2 percent shooting from the charity stripe), they could certainly move to 8-1. Their offense has been killer so far, leading the league in points per game (110.9), field goal percentage (50.3) and 3-point field goal percentage (47.1).
A win in over New Orleans would make Thursday’s game against the Lakers all the more exciting, but for now, the Suns have to avoid looking ahead and get it done against the Hornets.