It always seems to come down to the Jazz.
A common late-season opponent for the Suns, the Jazz have been pesky recently. They essentially ended the Suns’ season late last March and topped the Suns earlier this season during the infamous stretch of blown leads.
This meeting will be the first of three to come in the final 19 games, including the season finale in Utah. Ironically, this meeting will be lacking a key element of the Suns’ previous loss to the Jazz.
Against the Jazz in January, Goran Dragic recorded a career-high 32 points on 10-of-13 shooting including 6-of-7 three-pointers. But after spraining his ankle in the fourth quarter against the Clippers Wednesday night, Dragic will likely miss Thursday’s game, as reported by Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic.
Fortunately for the Suns, Steve Nash has gotten good rest over the last few games. Regardless though, Nash can’t play all 48 minutes — at least not with lingering back and abdominal issues. Some of the point guard duties will likely fall to Grant Hill and possibly even Jared Dudley.
Although it won’t be a total momentum killer (the Suns have won 13 of their last 16), not having Dragic is significant because he has been a spark of late in the second unit (one that contributed 56 points Wednesday against the Clippers). What’s scarier thought is the possibility of Dragic being out for any kind of extended period or the injury lingering.
The three matchups with the Jazz could very well be the most important of any remaining on the Suns’ schedule. The two teams are battling in the middle of the Western Conference standings, and if the playoffs started today, they would face each other.
A win Thursday night would move the Suns half a game ahead of the Jazz and into the fourth spot in the West. A loss would put them within Oklahoma City’s striking distance. This is no time to stumble.
The Suns can’t afford a back-and-forth with the Jazz for the rest of the season, as they risk falling into a highly unfavorable first-round matchup. And home-court advantage would be pretty nice for a team that looked in December and January like it might spiral out of contention entirely.
Having played four games in five days and getting the Jazz on a back-t0-back is certainly not something the Suns would have chosen for themselves (besides Isiah Thomas’ Knicks and the executives tasked with drafting for the Toronto Raptors, who likes to make life harder for themselves?).
But if the Suns can remain in the mode they have been in recently — playing strong second-half defense, rebounding the ball well and making up for Steve Nash’s recent scoring struggles — they have a much better chance at stopping the Jazz than they did in January. The team that will take the court tonight is much different than the one that blew a 17-point lead to the Jazz back then.
Matchup wise, the Suns always have their work cut out for them against the Jazz. Robin Lopez’s recent emergence as a strong post player should help to contain Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer somewhat, and if Amare Stoudemire decides it’s a defense night, that task will seem even more realistic.
Utah’s frontcourt duo is averaging a combined 31.8 points and 17.9 rebounds per game. If the Suns can bring some of the paint effort they did in out-rebounding the Clippers 50-30 last night, they should be able to hold Boozer to less than the 21 points and 20 boards he tallied in the January game.
But even more key for the Suns will be succeeding at something they did very well in that loss –shooting and defending the three. The Suns drained 17-of-30 three-pointers for a 56.7 percent shooting percentage from deep in that game. On the other end, they held the Jazz to 7-of-20 (35 percent). It’s still amazing that the Suns managed to lose that game.
Again, the Suns have very little breathing room right now in the close Western Conference race. Thursday night’s game with Utah is the beginning of what is now the most crucial stretch of the season.