PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns knew they would likely be taking a November road trip to face the best team in the Eastern Conference.
They just figured it would go down in a couple of weeks when they head to Florida for games against the Magic and the Heat.
It’s premature to jump to any long-term conclusions less than two weeks into the season, but it is a fact that Phoenix’s opponent Sunday afternoon, the 6-0 Atlanta Hawks, boast the East’s only undefeated record and one of three in the entire NBA (Lakers, Hornets).
And it certainly doesn’t get any easier after matching up with the East-leading Hawks. After a tough five-game start to the season, the Suns have a rematch with Memphis Monday, a potential toughie against the Kings Friday, a game at the Lakers followed by a home game against Denver and then a four-game trip to Miami, Orlando, Charlotte and Houston.
That’s why the Suns’ comeback win over Memphis was so important. If the Suns lose that one, I could have seen them getting buried before even heading out for the Florida trip. Now, not only do they have that win in their back pocket but the momentum generated from that victory could reverberate throughout this trip.
“We definitely can use the positive vibes and the good feelings,” Steve Nash said. “Hopefully it will spur us on to some improvement and some confidence.”
Especially after losing down the stretch against San Antonio, don’t underestimate what such a clutch performance to win in such improbable fashion can do to a club’s psyche.
Not that the Atlanta Hawks are too concerned about the Suns’ psyche. They’ve been too busy rolling through every team in their path. They’ve won four road games in this stretch, although they haven’t exactly played the toughest schedule with the only 2009-10 playoff team they’ve defeated being a squad that’s not exactly the same without King James.
The Hawks’ best victory came against the only non-playoff team on Phoenix’s docket to date (Memphis) and their opponents possess a combined 11-26 mark (.297), so it’s fair to say the Suns will be the best team Atlanta has faced thus far. The Suns’ early competition, meanwhile, has started 21-10 (.677), and the difference is illustrated in this graph.
The Hawks boast a balanced attack, with six players in double figures led by the $123 million dollar man Joe Johnson (18.2 ppg) and bench gunner Jamal Crawford (17.0). Al Horford (10.2 rebounds per game) and Josh Smith (9.2) clean up the boards, and Smith leads the NBA with an eye-popping 4.17 blocks per contest. Smith must be drooling over his potential matchup against Hedo Turkoglu.
Only the Lakers have put out a more efficient offense than the Hawks, with Atlanta averaging 110.5 points per 100 possessions. The Suns traditionally lead this stat but are only eighth at 106.3 pp100. The Hawks possess a top-10 ranking in defensive efficiency while the Suns are only top 20.
Phoenix’s win in Utah shows that even as they gel the Suns aren’t afraid of a tough road venue, and let’s be honest, Atlanta’s Philips Arena will never be confused with a raucous arena like the home of the Jazz, especially on a Sunday afternoon when the Falcons are hosting a showdown against the Buccaneers for first place in the NFC South down the road.
Still, the Hawks are used to winning in spite of a bad crowd, although the Suns could catch them looking ahead to a showdown Monday against the Magic squad that embarrassed them in the playoffs last fall.
Such a victory would bring the Suns to .500 and give them further hope that they can weather their rough November storm of a schedule even as they are still in the process of gelling as a team.
“We set the bar for ourselves, now we have to continue working on it,” Channing Frye said. “For us it’s getting better every game and continuing to grow as a team.”
Josh Childress will be making a Homecoming of sorts to Atlanta this afternoon. Childress, the No. 6 overall pick by the Hawks in the 2004 NBA Draft, averaged 11.1 points and 5.6 boards per game in four seasons as a Hawk before heading to Greece. He’s averaging just 4.4 and 2.6 in Phoenix while struggling with a broken finger and a sore hip. … You might remember the Suns felt as shell shocked leaving Philips Arena last season as the Grizzlies likely felt departing US Airways Center Friday night. Crawford drilled a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer in that one during the heart of Phoenix’s stretch of blowing double-digit lead after double-digit lead. … The basketball betting odds on this game have the Hawks installed as just 6 1/2 point favorites, and we know that wouldn’t be the case if the Suns were playing one of the non-undefeated powerhouses in the Southeast Division.