Preview: Phoenix Suns (19-21) at Washington Wizards (12-28)

Phoenix Suns 109, Washington Wizards 91

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Having won four games in a row and five of six, the Suns appear to have taken their hand off the panic button.

The Suns have notched good wins over Portland and New York, but have also benefited from a favorable stretch of opponents.

The stretch continues as the Suns take the floor at the Verizon Center on Friday night. Taking on the Wizards for the second time this season (the last a 125-108 Suns win), the Suns have the opportunity to move to just one game under .500.

A big part of the Suns’ recent success has been the play of 38-year-old forward Grant Hill. Hill notched his third straight game of 20 or more points against Cleveland on Wednesday, a feat he hadn’t accomplished since his Orlando days, in Dec. 2006.

Suns coach Alvin Gentry said Thursday on Sports 620 KTAR that Hill is part of what could get the Suns into the playoffs this season. Without him, Gentry said, the Suns will certainly play no more than 82 games.

In three games since returning from a knee injury suffered against Cleveland on Jan. 9, Hill has averaged 24.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Taking on the Wizards, who rank 20th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, Hill has a shot to make it four straight 20-point games.

Somewhat buried behind Hill’s resurgence, however, was the continued emergence of center Marcin Gortat as a reliable center. He may not become a go-to starter who plays 30-40 minutes each night, but he is providing an important post presence the Suns aren’t getting from Robin Lopez.

In 27 minutes against the Cavs, Gortat notched 16 points and 12 rebounds while also compiling a team-high +24. Gortat may not be the long-term answer at center, but he is the right now answer and it’s certainly showing in the minutes. Despite Gortat’s added strength in the post, the Suns remain the league’s fourth-worst rebounding team.

The other pieces that came over from Orlando are a bit tougher to place. Vince Carter will play well at times (29 points against the Knicks), but then he’ll turn in a total stinker (three points against the Cavaliers; didn’t score until the fourth quarter). Inconsistency is killing him.

Mickael Pietrus has, unfortunately, become an odd man out in Gentry’s rotation. After a good start as a Sun, he hasn’t gotten much of a chance, which seems strange considering his defensive ability.

The Suns have won their last eight meetings with the Wizards, with the last Washington win coming in Dec. 2006. If there’s any reason to believe the Wizards will end their woes against the Suns, it’s their home record.

Each of the Wizards’ 12 wins this season have come in our nation’s capital. They have also lost eight games at home, but are 10-2 on their own floor against teams with losing records.

The Wizard to watch in this game? Shooting guard Nick Young. Young has taken his game to a new level since moving into the starting lineup and is averaging 22.3 points per game in the month of January.

The Suns’ schedule remains pretty favorable overall for a while, but matchups with the likes of the Wizards, Pistons (Saturday) and 76ers (Monday) are must-wins so the team has some room for error in upcoming games with the Celtics, Hornets and Thunder.

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