PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns and Miami Heat enter tonight’s showdown in South Beach in the same place in the standings at 6-4, but how the teams feel about their first 10 games is about as different as their offseasons.
The Suns come into this one having won three in a row and five of six.
They have gone on the road and beaten the likes of the Lakers, the Jazz and the Hawks and overall rank sixth in John Hollinger’s Power Rankings off the virtue of playing the league’s third-toughest schedule thus far.
The Heat rank second in that same measure off the strength of their league-leading point differential (+9.4), but their season thus far has been colored by blowing out the bad teams (plus Orlando) but losing to good teams in Boston (twice), Utah and New Orleans.
For a team that some thought might have a chance of chasing the illustrious 72-win mark, four early losses can be seen as a major disappointment in the land of LeBron, where every piece of negativity gets picked apart ad nauseum.
But Suns head coach Alvin Gentry certainly doesn’t look at Miami as your typical 6-4 team.
“I wouldn’t read a whole lot into their record right now,” he said. “I think those guys are still trying to find each other, figure out how they’re going to play.”
Although the Suns will of course struggle with containing LeBron and D-Wade like everyone else does, the Suns’ weaknesses on the boards and in defending the interior aren’t exactly Miami strengths.
The Heat rank just No. 27 in offensive rebound rate, grabbing 23.0 percent of their potential offensive boards. Their leading rebounder is Udonis Haslem off the bench with 8.6, and nobody else averages more than six. Like Phoenix, Miami instead relies on big contributions on the glass from their wings.
Former Heat player Earl Barron should give the Suns a lift on the glass in his debut. It will be interesting to see how much Barron factors into Alvin Gentry’s rotation, but if he hits the boards hard like he told Paul Coro it’s his aim to do then he figures to get a decent amount of burn going forward.
Next to rebounding, the Suns’ biggest problem will be the same question every other opponent asks when it comes to Miami: How do you contain two of the game’s most dynamic perimeter threats?
The numbers for LeBron and Wade (or Wade and LeBron, if you so prefer) are down this season as they take touches away from each other, but they still average a combined 47.0 points, 11.6 boards and 12.1 assists per game.
The Suns figure to recover and help with their scrambling style and perhaps play a bit of zone to prevent this duo from carving them up with dribble penetration at the cup. Phoenix knows these guys will score, but the Suns just want to make it tough on them and make them get their points with high-volume shooting.
“Both those guys are obviously gifted, talented guys, and the one thing that we’ve tried to do with high scorers like Kobe and Melo is really just try to keep them off the free-throw line,” said Josh Childress, who will be tasked with defending them. “It’s going to be tough stopping them from getting their averages or whatever it may be, but you keep them off the line it makes our job a little easier and we’re able to kind of keep a flow to the game and really just try to make them take tough shots, make them take jump shots and keep them out of the lane.”
The other member of the so-called Big Three, Bosh, has been the disappointment of the season thus far with averages of 14.5 points and 6.0 boards per game, but the RuPaul of big men — as Shaq once called him — is going to break out one of these days and he won’t get a better front line to do it against than that of the Suns.
Through 10 games, the Suns have exceeded expectations with their trio of big road victories, but winning a game in the national spotlight in Miami could announce to the league that they are for real much the way their November win in Boston did last season.
At the age of 38, Grant Hill leads the Suns in rebounding (5.7) and is an important part of Phoenix’s up-tempo attack. His long-time coach Gentry can’t believe how young he looks.
“Our medical staff here revived his whole career,” Gentry said. “I’ve coached him eight of the years he’s been in the league, and this is probably as athletic and as healthy as he’s been since those first couple years we were in Detroit together.”
In other Hill news, Grant picked up a technical Monday night asking for a foul, prompting a reporter to joke that won’t help his campaign to win the NBA’s sportsmanship award for the fourth time in his career.
“After the preseason, I’ve given up on sportsmanship,” Hill said. “I’ve just got to chalk it up as a loss and shoot for next year.”