Preview: Suns (32-22) at Mavericks (32-21)

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Mavericks 107, Suns 97

Suns

Mavericks

Thumping Memphis last night was a very good way to come out of the All-Star break and start the second half of the season for the Suns. Tonight’s matchup against Dallas requires that the Suns stay up and perform well in the back-to-back.

The Suns are 4-8 in the second game of back-to-backs this season. Not a very impressive stat. But what has been impressive lately is the Suns’ play on the road. Having won five straight games on the road and improving to 14-15 away from US Airways Center, the Suns have gone from feeble road team to road warrior.

However, in the Mavericks, the Suns face one of the tougher road environments. The Suns lost in Dallas earlier this season but won when the Mavericks came to Phoenix. At home against Dallas, the Suns had the energy of a full house behind them and played solid defense — the key to last night’s win over Memphis as well.

“When we don’t turn the ball over, we’re not a bad team defensively,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said recently. “So when we don’t turn it over and teams aren’t running out on us and we can get set, we’ve been pretty consistent with what we’ve done defensively.”

It seems the Suns were able to get away with a pile of turnovers against the Grizzlies (14 for 16 points) and still play good defense, holding Memphis to 35.6 percent shooting.

Something the Suns also did against Memphis was control the paint, outscoring the Grizzlies 58-32 down low. The Suns also outscored the Mavericks in the paint 50-36 back on Jan. 28.

The key to this newfound paint presence has to be the emergence of Robin Lopez. Since entering the starting lineup in mid-January, Lopez has averaged 12.8 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. Those numbers don’t seem terribly impressive, but with the fact that Channing Frye is getting significant minutes as well, they are certainly solid.

The most important thing Lopez has brought though has been a defensive fire. Lopez plays physical and has gotten better about staying out of foul trouble. With Lopez solidifying post defense, the Suns are forcing teams to take more shots away from the basket. This defensive presence has been huge for a team notorious for optional questionable defense.

As usual, the defensive key will be stopping Dirk Nowitzki. Although that’s easier said than done, it is something the Suns were able to manage to a degree in their last meeting. Nowitzki scored 19 points, nine of which came at the charity stripe. After the game, Gentry lauded the defensive efforts of Jared Dudley and Grant Hill for neutralizing Nowitzki down the stretch. On top of it all, Nowitzki hasn’t seemed the same since injuring his right elbow.

The difference between this game and January’s Suns-Mavs meeting in Phoenix, besides location, is obvious. During the All-Star break, the Mavericks transformed their roster dramatically, adding two starters to the mix in guard Caron Butler (16.9 points, 6.7 rebounds per game) and center Brendan Haywood (9.7 points, 10.3 rebounds per game) as well as backup guard DeShawn Stevenson (whose stats aren’t even worth noting).

Although Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said the trade makes his team “significantly” better, it may not be immediately evident. The Thunder pushed the Mavericks around last night, winning 99-86, indicating that maybe these new-look Mavs need a little time to adjust and build chemistry.

There remains, however, the elephant in the room: Amare Stoudemire. The subject of endless trade rumors and speculation, Stoudemire has thrived of late, averaging 26.0 points and 11.3 rebounds since a 22-point, one-rebound performance against Dallas in which he was benched during the deciding fourth quarter. However, Stoudemire has the NBA’s third-worst drop off in scoring average on the second game of a back-to-back, averaging 5.8 fewer points on those days (16.7 points) than all others (22.5).

Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski reported today that sources are claiming that Stoudemire “was privately telling friends that he believes he’s playing his last game in a Suns uniform on Wednesday night in Dallas.”

With that, I imagine you will see something of an inspired performance from STAT. The Suns could definitely use it, as a sixth straight road win would be a huge confidence booster — not to mention a huge win in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.

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Tags: Amar'e Stoudemire Dallas Mavericks Phoenix Suns Suns Game Preview

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