Preview: Suns (37-23) at Spurs (32-24)

Spurs 113, Suns 110

Suns

Spurs

After nearly falling to .500 while slumping in December and January, the Suns set up a make-or-break February.

Having won nine of 11 games this month, it appears the Suns opted for “make.” The team seemed to flip a switch and start playing their best basketball of the season.

There have been a few important elements to the Suns’ February success, and it starts with Amare Stoudemire. Since late January when he sat out the fourth quarter of a win over the Mavericks, Stoudemire has been nearly unstoppable.

In the month of February, Stoudemire is averaging 23.9 points and 9.9 rebounds per game — increases of about two in each category from January. Not only that, Stoudemire has shown at times that he can play defense … if he wants to.

Jason Richardson’s numbers are up as well — closer to the stats of the player the Suns thought they were getting in last season’s trade. J-Rich has increased his January numbers of 13.1 points and 5.3 rebounds to 16.9 points and 6.6 rebounds. And those stats don’t reflect the intangibles, like his game-tying free throws and game-winning shot against Oklahoma City.

But possibly the biggest leap of all has come from Robin Lopez, as displayed Friday against the Clippers when Lopez racked up a career-best 30 points and 12 rebounds. His January numbers jumped from 9.9 points and 4.9 rebounds to 13.4 points and 7.0 rebounds in February.

Lopez has improved more than his stats though, solidifying his strength, awareness and physicality while also bringing a defensive presence foreign to most on Planet Orange.

This has all been especially important for this reason: Steve Nash is having a tough February. The month started off mostly normal, but once the All-Star break hit, things got rough for Captain Canada.

Nash went through a whirlwind of a weekend, carrying the Olympic torch in Canada, flying to Dallas for the All-Star Game, winning the Skills Challenge and starting the game, all the while battling lower back pain and an abdominal strain.

Nash’s points per game average has dropped this from 18.2 in January to 13.1 in February, which included a three-game stretch in which Nash failed to score 10 points. His assist numbers have been up this month though, jumping from 11.0 to 11.8.

So Nash is still making plays happen, he just isn’t necessarily a part of them. Taking a game off seemed to do wonders for Nash as he came out and had a fantastic game against Philadelphia Wednesday. But Friday’s game against the Clippers again saw Nash struggle, as he made only one of seven shots and totaled eight points.

Fortunately for the Suns, Goran Dragic has played well and, as mentioned, a number of individuals have stepped up.

What has to be frustrating is that despite going 11-2 over their last 13 games, the Suns have barely moved in the standings. They still sit one game behind Utah in the five spot in the Western Conference but are only 3 1/2 games ahead of eighth-place Portland.

Simply put, there is no room for mistakes right now. With just 22 games remaining, the Suns will need to play nearly flawless basketball with teams like New Orleans, Houston and Memphis fighting for a playoff spot and teams like Oklahoma City and San Antonio trying to move up.

The tight race in the West makes this matchup all the more important, something that’s not lost on the Suns.

“We have the early game against San Antonio Sunday and the crowd is going to be amazing at the Alamo,” Stoudemire said after Friday’s game. “I think we’re going to be all right. We just have to make sure we come out and play the way we did tonight and keep that same focus. It’s going to be a huge game.”

Although some have claimed that Tim Duncan is past his prime, he is still averaging 19.1 points and 11.0 rebounds a game. Not his best numbers, but impressive and impacting nonetheless.

“He’s going to get his baskets, and you just have to try to limit him as much as you can,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said after the Suns’ Dec. 15 win over the Spurs.

That wasn’t exactly in the cards for the defensively questionable Suns that game, as Duncan scored a season-high 34 points. What will be interesting to see in this game is whether the Suns’ recent defensive improvement (which Gentry had no explanation for before Friday’s game) and the improved play of Lopez changes the way these teams match up.

Such a defensive change in this matchup would certainly be a great thing for the Suns, who face the Spurs one more time this season after Sunday. No matter what happens though, Suns vs. Spurs always seems to make for an exciting, emotional matchup.

Tags: Suns Game Preview

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