Preview: Kings (18-37) at Suns (33-23)

Suns 104, Kings 88



A meeting with the mediocre awful Sacramento Kings couldn’t come at a more perfect time.

Steve Nash is aching with back and abdominal pain (he didn’t practice Saturday but will likely play Sunday), so it’s a good chance for him to decrease his minutes for at least one game.

Amare Stoudemire is playing his best basketball of the season, averaging 24.6 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. A game against the Kings should keep his streak of games with 20 or more points alive (currently at nine), while also letting him rest up a bit for Oklahoma City on Tuesday.

And the defense is at a season-high in efficiency, holding opponents under 100 in two of their last three games.

On top of all that, the Suns are a season-high tying 12 games over .500 and in position to move up in the tight Western Conference playoff picture after winning seven of their last nine games.

So on such a high right now, it’s the perfect time for a trap game, right? Well, I won’t say that again. I’ve made that mistake before when it came time to play the Kings and the Suns hardily manhandled them. And those Kings teams had two 20-plus points a game scorers.

While everyone in Phoenix awaited the fate of Amare Stoudemire at the trade deadline, the Kings were busy trading away guard Kevin Martin as part of the Tracy McGrady to New York deal. In the end, the Kings ended up with a decent return in forward Carl Landry (16.1 points, 5.5 rebounds per game) and journeyman guard Larry Hughes (9.6 points, 3.5 assists per game), but didn’t do a whole lot to get better this season (the Kings also received Joey Dorsey, but who cares?).

The odd thing about this Kings team is they were once a team with a high hopes (in Kings land that means first-round playoff exit or at least a near-miss). Eighteen game into the season, this was a .500 team under the tutelage of a coach with proven NBA success (Paul Westphal, who took the Suns to the Finals in ’93). But something went terribly wrong and the Kings are now tied for fourth-worst in the NBA.

All the better for the Suns though as they look to make it two wins in a row. It’s hard to say what the key will be in this game because the Kings are so changed. The obvious is that the recent defense needs to continue, which is always asking a lot of the Suns.

Another key lately though has been Suns coach Alvin Gentry’s rotation management. He has done an excellent job of plugging in the right guys at the right times to create good matchups and lineup combinations.

Friday’s second-half lineup that held the Hawks to 30 points prominently featured super subs Jared Dudley, Goran Dragic and Louis Amundson. Those three were a crucial part of the Suns’ 13-0 fourth quarter run that put away the Hawks, all while Stoudemire and Nash sat on the bench.

The other thing the Suns need to improve is turnovers. Gentry has been talking about the importance of cutting down turnovers endlessly and for good reason. The Suns surrendered 14 in Tuesday’s  win over Memphis and 17 against the Hawks on Friday. Protecting the ball better can be a game-changing thing when the Suns are allowing 15-plus points on turnovers.

This game is at its simplest an opportunity for the Suns to go out and build some momentum while getting their stars a little rest. But it’s up to Gentry and the players to make sure they don’t come out flat and lose a should-win game.

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