PHOENIX — There is no better time than now for the Phoenix Suns to make a push toward a top-four seed and home-court advantage in the Western Conference playoffs. Two nights after taking care of New Orleans, the Suns host the lowly Timberwolves, who have lost nine in a row, and remain only one game back of the Oklahoma City Thunder for the fifth seed and two games back of Utah, who they play at home on Friday, for the No. 4 spot.
The Suns have taken care of the teams that they are supposed to as of late — winners of seven in a row against teams under .500 and 20-9 on the season in such games — and the Timberwolves fit that description. In fact, seven of the Suns’ next nine games are against teams with a losing record, and they need to take advantage while they can if they hope to be playing in US Airways Center to begin the playoffs.
The Western Conference is a logjam, but the Suns’ schedule is favorable, and they will be receiving a boost from the seemingly “forgotten Sun” Leandro Barbosa. LB has been a staple in the Suns’ offense since he burst onto the scene in 2006. But with the vast improvement of Goran Dragic, along with the Blur’s injury issues, Barbosa has become an afterthought of sorts in Phoenix.
But the former Sixth Man of the Year will return to action tonight after a 23-game absence due to wrist surgery for the removal of a cyst. And a game against the 14-53 Timberwolves figures to be the perfect confidence booster. The Suns are 19-10 with LB in the lineup, but they have won 16 of the 23 games that he’s missed during this stretch and have played some of their best basketball in his absence.
“The team’s been playing so well so I’m going to have to find some way, somehow to fit into the group,” Barbosa told The Arizona Republic. “It’ll be fine. I know we’ve got to run. I think I can do that. I’ll be happy to do that.”
A healthy Barbosa will undoubtedly be a great addition both scoring and depth-wise, but Alvin Gentry is going to have to juggle the minutes of Steve Nash, Jason Richardson, Dragic and LB. J-Rich needs to get going for the Suns to be successful (21-4 when he scores 20-plus), Dragic has been such a huge part of the second unit’s success, and Nash will be up around 30 minutes night in and night out, so finding minutes for LB will be a little bit tough. But if the Suns can build a sizable lead against Minnesota, which they should, LB can get his feet wet again and gain some confidence for this all-important final stretch.
The Suns are playing some of their best basketball of the season, their schedule is favorable, and LB is back, but the West is so good that all of that may not result in home-court advantage.
“(We’ve won) 15 out of 20 and we’ve moved up one spot,” coach Alvin Gentry said after the Hornets game. “Welcome to the West.”
Hill to play
After injuring his head in a hard fall during the Hornets game, Grant Hill will play according to Paul Coro’s Twitter account. Coro tweeted: “Grant Hill will play tonight. Leandro Barbosa also will play his first game since Jan. 22.”
“Other than my neck, the rest of my body feels good,” Hill told The Republic.
STAT continues tear
In case you haven’t noticed, Amare Stoudemire is dominating the NBA right now. In his last seven games Amare is averaging 30.7 points, 11.0 rebounds and a ridiculous 11.6 free-throw attempts per game. In fact, STAT has gotten to the line so much that he’s made only five less free throws (23) than the Suns’ opponents (28) in the last two games, including a 14-for-14 effort against the Hornets.
Stoudemire has continued his 30-point onslaught, as he’s recorded an NBA-best-tying seven games with 30 or more since the All-Star break. He managed to eclipse the 30-point mark only four times before the break.