Preview: Suns (27-21) at Rockets (25-21)

Suns 115, Rockets 111 OT



PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns need to be more like the Houston Rockets, both now and certainly after a potential Amare trade.

In terms of pure talent, the Rockets have no business being just a half-game out of a playoff spot in the crowded Western Conference, especially since they rank 17th in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

A decent chunk more than half their salary is tied up in two players who aren’t playing (the injured Yao Ming and the exiled Tracy McGrady), yet the Rockets still are a definite playoff contender because they just outwork teams. The Rockets play with heart, hustle and energy, knowing they won’t win games on talent alone.

That’s what Steve Nash seems to talk about after every loss. These Phoenix Suns cannot win games based on pure talent alone (OK, they can when they play the Nets, but this is the case more often than not). The Suns need to win games because they play better together than the other team, embracing the whole is better than the sum of their parts cliche.

That’s how the Suns went 14-3 in November, including a Nov. 17 win in which the Suns came back from a 15-point deficit in Houston.

We started to see that on Thursday against Dallas. The Suns were flying around on defense, holding Dirk Nowitzki scoreless in the fourth and playing with the kind of passion that characterized their November start.

If the Suns don’t duplicate that effort, they will not beat a Houston team that we know will bring the requisite effort.

“They play very blue collar and they’re a physical team,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “Aaron Brooks has had a great year for them. And I think [Luis] Scola is one of the smartest guys in the league.”

Added Jared Dudley, “They play very hard, they play physical [and] they have one of the best home-court advantages.”

Tonight’s game starts a crucial four-game road trip that will span six days, after which the Suns will play just one game in 11 days.

After Houston, Phoenix will take on New Orleans, Denver and Sacramento, all of which are tough games, particularly for a Suns team that has lost 12 of 13 on the road after an 8-3 start away from Phoenix.

As things stand now, the seventh-place Suns are only two games out of fourth but also just one game ahead of 11th. Six teams in the West (Nos. 6-11) have lost 21 games, including both the Suns and the Rockets.

“Right now in the West, on any given night, any team is capable of winning a game,” Gentry said.

“Every time you step out on the court, though, it’s going to be a challenge,” he added. “There’s no one, including the Lakers, that [you] can just write it in and say, ‘We’ll win that game for sure.'”

After two months of blown leads and shoddy execution down the stretch, it’s time the Suns took a page from the Rockets’ book and combined their offensive prowess with a touch of grittiness.

Tyler Lockman contributed reporting.

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