Preview: Phoenix Suns (6-7) at Houston Rockets (3-9)

Suns 123, Rockets 116

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Just when it looked like the Suns were gaining some momentum after big wins over the Lakers and Nuggets, everything seemed to go south.

First it was Robin Lopez, who was ruled out for “several weeks” with a sprained knee. Though he had been struggling, Lopez’s defensive presence and size can’t be replaced on a team that’s perennially inept in the post.

Then Steve Nash was forced out of action after the Suns were ripped by the Heat to start the road trip. Nash’s status isn’t certain for Monday’s game with the Rockets, but he isn’t likely to take the floor. Starting in Nash’s place, Goran Dragic has fared OK, averaging 13.5 points and seven assists.

It isn’t the numbers that the Suns miss most of Nash though; it’s the leadership and command of the floor, something Dragic is still developing.

The last time the Suns lost three straight on the road was Jan. 13 – 18 of last season, when they lost four straight to Indiana, Atlanta, Charlotte and Memphis. They’ll look Monday to avoid matching the four-game skid, and taking on a 3-9 Rockets team might make that easier.

Houston hasn’t lived up to the expectations many had for the team, especially with Yao Ming’s latest injury and general tumble into irrelevance.

The Chuck Hayes-Brad Miller combo at center has been serviceable, but only nets 8.9 boards per game, less than forward Luis Scola’s team-leading 9.6 per. Yet somehow, the Rockets remain the league’s eighth-best rebounding team.

With Scola contributing on the inside (22.6 points per game) and Kevin Martin (23.8) on the outside the Rockets are a capable scoring team whose 104.7 points per game is fifth-best in the league. Additionally, they are doing it without starting point guard Aaron Brooks.

Houston’s defensive efforts, however, don’t back its scoring up, as its 107.2 points allowed per game is the NBA’s fourth worst (but still better than the Suns’ 109.0!).

The Rockets are getting killed in the paint (-2.0 rebounding differential), but the Suns are worse (-6.4). Worst in the league, in fact. Channing Frye’s 5.5 rebounds per game lead the team. Not a good sign.

The lack of a post presence is no doubt the start of the Suns’ defensive problems, but certainly not the end. According to John Hollinger’s statistics, the Suns are second only to the Clippers for league’s most inefficient defense. And obviously when playing teams like the Heat and Magic, defense is going to be much more difficult, the fact remains that (as usual), the Suns’ lack of defense is killing them (allowing 30 more than average per game to Charlotte?!).

On this road trip through three games, the Suns are getting absolutely clobbered by an average of 20.3 points per game. This one may come down to a simple game of “who can play less defense?”

One thing that might swing this matchup in the Suns’ favor? The Rockets’ porous three-point defense. Houston is currently letting opponents hit 39.3 percent of three-pointers on the season and 48.6 in its last three games, all losses. The Suns have the players to take advantage, but they have been slumping from deep. Breaking out of their deep-ball funk could put this game on a platter.

With the Bulls up Wednesday in Phoenix, the need to get a win is increased (seen Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah’s rebounding numbers lately?). Houston may just be the slump-buster the Suns need to salvage this road trip from being a complete failure.

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Tags: Houston Rockets Phoenix Suns Robin Lopez Steve Nash Suns Preview

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