Preview: Suns (24-16) at Bobcats (18-19)

Bobcats 125, Suns 99



Earlier this season, following a loss, a game against the likes of a (barely) sub-.500 Charlotte team would be  a cure-all to get the Suns back on track.

But as of late, little is guaranteed for this Suns squad that continues to baffle fans and players alike. Whether it’s inconsistency or blown leads, the Suns can’t seem to decide who they are and stay that way.

Last night’s heartbreaking loss to Atlanta on Jamal Crawford’s buzzer-beating three was simply a crazy ending, and there isn’t a lot the Suns could have done about it, but regardless it put their losing streak at two. The Suns again died by the three (in more ways than one), as they made just 2-of-13 attempts for a pitiful 15.4 shooting percentage behind the arc.

The biggest positive the Suns can take away from the loss is playing a top-five team close on the road. But now Phoenix has to forget about the sting from that defeat and focus on the Bobcats, a team that’s won six of seven in 2010 and six in a row at home after spanking San Antonio by 16 last night.

The Bobcats rely on the NBA’s third-best defense, a unit that yields just 98.5 points per 100 possessions. Only the Lakers and Celtics rank percentage points better. Charlotte’s offense is considerably weaker, ranking 27th (98.6 pp100). The Suns, by contrast, lead the league in offensive efficiency (111.4) and rank 24th on the defensive side of things (107.6).

Charlotte has been without starting center Tyson Chandler since late December, and his backup, aging journeyman Nazr Mohammed, isn’t exactly putting up impressive numbers. The 6-foot-10 center is contributing just 7.4 points and 4.2 rebounds while splitting time with an even bigger slouch in DeSagana Diop (1.1 points, 1.7 rebounds a game).

Charlotte’s lack of a solid center should give the Suns a chance to control the paint and get some second-chance points on offense. Helping the struggling centers out down low is former Sun Boris Diaw, who was sent to Charlotte in the Jared Dudley/Jason Richardson trade. The Frenchman is averaging 10.5 points and 4.6 rebounds per game.

The Bobcats rebound enforcer remains small forward Gerald Wallace, who is putting up an impressive 18.0 points per game to go with a team-leading 11.4 boards (fourth in the NBA). Limiting Wallace should be a little easier with less focus on post defense.

As always, Stephen Jackson remains a threat, as he leads Charlotte in scoring with an average of 19.8 points per game. The Suns should also have an advantage when it comes to players off the bench. Sporting one of the league’s weakest set of backups, Charlotte’s leader of the bench is guard Ronald Murray, who’s posting 9.7 points a game in an average of 20.8 minutes on the floor.

For the Suns, Leandro Barbosa leads the bench in scoring with an average of 10.5 points a game and Jared Dudley isn’t far behind, averaging 8.4 points per game. Dudley has slipped just a bit as of late, perhaps because he has scaled back his three-point shooting. Dudley still leads the league in percentage from downtown, shooting 48.4 percent .

Steve Nash remains one of the Suns’ few consistencies, averaging 19 points and 11.2 assists (second in the NBA) per game. With the depleted/mediocre big men on the floor for Charlotte, Nash should get plenty of opportunities to drive to the hoop and either score or dish to Amare Stoudemire. This should be one of those games when Nash works his magic, pulling strings to get the whole team involved.

Charlotte also turns the ball over (16.3 times per game) more than any team except the lowly Timberwolves, but also causes more (16.0 per game) than all but two teams. The Suns have coughed up the ball a bit less recently, but will still have to guard the ball like it’s a priceless diamond

So clearly the Suns have a number of things working in their favor in this matchup. However, the same could have been said about their tilts against the Indiana Pacers and the Memphis Grizzlies, and we know those games didn’t turn out as most expected them to.

With one more game on this road trip after Charlotte (Monday’s afternoon showdown in Memphis), the Suns could certainly use a pick-me-up. Taking these next two before returning to Phoenix, where they play five of seven games to finish out the month, could certainly serve as such.

If the Suns plan on capturing a decent playoff seed, let alone make the playoffs in a very competitive Western Conference (11-of-15 teams over .500, with even the cursed Clippers just four games under), they’ll need to start playing more like the Suns team that started 14-3 rather than the inconsistent bunch that has gone 10-13 since.

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