Preview: Magic (17-5) at Suns (15-7)

Suns 106, Magic 103





PHOENIX — Having lost four of their last five, the Suns are in dire need of a win. Coming home may just be the answer to their recent woes.

With a 7-0 record at US Airways Center, the Suns are the only team in the NBA still unbeaten on their own court. But considering the Suns have not played a home game against any team that’s currently above .500, Friday’s game against the Magic will be colossally important.

The Magic, winners of six straight and 11 of their last 12 before losing last night in Utah, pummeled the Suns 122-100 in Orlando on Nov. 4 for their first loss of the season. They had been tied for first in the East with Boston before losing 120-111 to the Jazz, their first loss when scoring 100 points or more all season. However, the Magic have lost seven straight games in Phoenix, dating back to Nov. 2001.

The scariest part of the challenge: Dwight Howard. Howard is averaging 18.4 points and 12.0 rebounds per game and dropped 25 points on the Suns last time around. Howard is the kind of big man (the truly elite kind) that baffles the Suns.

Asked after practice Thursday how the Suns would try to stop Howard, Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said that if the Suns could “get a bulldozer or something where we could keep him out of the lane, we’d gladly use it.”

Channing Frye and Amare Stoudemire are both having good years, even a career year for Frye. But neither possesses the skills to stop Howard and still be an offensive threat. As the Sacramento game showed, Stoudemire can still rebound, as he pulled in a season-high 21. But his scoring suffered somewhat, as he netted 18 (not bad by any means) and seemed totally focused on rebounding.

Opposing starting centers aren’t doing so well against Orlando on the whole, averaging only 8.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game this season, the lowest in the NBA.

If Gentry thinks he is ready, Robin Lopez will likely see more minutes than usual in this game to add a big post presence and take some pressure off Stoudemire.

“When we play against smaller teams, my minutes may be a little more limited,” Lopez said Thursday after practice. “This is one of the games I get to look forward to. It’s a big man game.”

Only adding to the challenge, the Magic have two stars back in the lineup that the Suns didn’t have to deal with the last time these teams met. Rashard Lewis finished his suspension and is now averaging 15.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.

“With Rashard Lewis it adds not just another great shooter, but another tall guy who can post up and do some things,” Gentry said.

Also in the lineup after missing the first Magic-Suns meeting with a sprained ankle is Vince Carter. Until he gets injured again (and we know he will), Carter is in top form, averaging 20.1 points a game.

While the Magic have the Dwight Howard advantage, the Suns have the Steve Nash advantage. Nash still leads the league in assists with 11.0 per game and his assists are more crucial to this Suns team than most realize.

When Nash dishes 11 or more assists this season, the Suns are 9-0. With 10 or fewer, they are 6-7. This is not really shocking, as Nash is truly the catalyst of this team. When he is making things happen for his teammates and pulling the strings of the offense, the Suns are at their best.

Add the fact the Magic starting point guard Jameer Nelson is out with a torn meniscus in his left knee and Nash has an even greater advantage going up against the average Jason Williams.

In other areas, theses two teams are very similar. Both love to run the floor and rely on three-pointers. The Magic lead the league in three-point attempts per game with 27.8, but the Suns aren’t far behind with 22.5.

Both the Suns and the Magic are high-scoring teams, with the Suns averaging 112 points per 100 possessions and the Magic 110, so success in this matchup may be predicated on defense.

The Suns might be the NBA’s best at home, but the Magic have been the road warriors of the NBA, with a league-best 10 wins away from home.

“You can’t be an elite team in this league if you don’t know how to win on the road,” Lewis recently told ESPN. “You can’t just win home games.”

The Suns will look to win their 17th straight game at US Airways, but they will need to shoot better than they have (44 percent over the last five games), rebound better and stop Superman Howard.

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