Preview: Charlotte Bobcats (18-25) at Phoenix Suns (20-23)

Charlotte Bobcats 114, Phoenix Suns 107

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The Suns embarked on their recent five-game road trip looking to reestablish themselves as a playoff team while giving hope to a loyal fan base.

A 3-0 start to extend the team’s winning streak to five games gave those fans hope and seemingly a reason to not give up on the season.

Punctuating the road trip with bad losses to the Detroit Pistons and Philadelphia 76ers may have undone  all of that and revealed a false hope rooted in victories over the NBA’s cellar dwellers.

Sure, beating the New York Knicks was a good victory and a moral triumph after Amare Stoudemire’s new crew shellacked the Suns in Phoenix, but the other four victories came over teams with a combined 59-121 record. Three of those teams (Washington, New Jersey, Cleveland) are among the league’s six worst.

The question now becomes whether or not the Suns can beat fellow fringe teams such as the Charlotte Bobcats, who come to US Airways Center on Wednesday night with a 1-0 record against the Suns this season.

Many would pessimistically answer the question with a “no” based on the Suns’ inability to consistently beat lesser opponents. The Suns do, however, have the advantage of playing at home where they are a touch over .500 at 11-9.

Though the Suns are no longer the NBA’s least-efficient defensive team (congratulations, Toronto Raptors), the standard complaint may not be the team’s biggest problem right now. Right now, sloppy basketball is killing the Suns.

Over the 3-2 road trip, the Suns averaged 16 turnovers per game for an average of 20 points. Steve Nash averaged 4.6 per game, one more than his season average of 3.59. The team’s current season average of 14.8 turnovers per game is tied for 21st in the league.

Such numbers lead to an inevitable question: If bad teams like Cleveland and New Jersey can force the ball out of the Suns’ hands, what can the NBA’s best do? The Suns may soon find out, as they take on the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Celtics on Friday.

Since Larry Brown was fired as head coach of the Bobcats and replaced with Paul Silas, the Bobcats have gone 9-6.  More telling though is their 4-1 record against the Suns in the pair’s last five meetings.

In the Nov. 20 game in Charlotte this season, the Bobcats topped the Suns in rebounds, assists, shooting percentage and blocks (and most importantly, points). Taking on the Bobcats may not be what the Suns need to get back on a winning track.

Further struggles could see Suns coach Alvin Gentry tinker with the team’s lineup and rotations even more. Against the 76ers on Monday, little-used forward Mickael Pietrus saw the floor, and more amazing was 20 minutes of action for Josh Childress.

In those 20 minutes, Childress didn’t make much of a case for himself offensively, but did help the Suns get a number of defensive stops during a late-game surge that cut the margin of defeat to 10 points.

Who plays when is just one of the many questions still floating around unanswered on Planet Orange right now. The Suns’ recent play has allowed them to avoid the ultimate question of what direction to take, but with the season more than half over and the trade deadline less than a month away, the team may have to face a tough decision.

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