Preview: New Orleans Hornets (31-17) at Phoenix Suns (21-24)

Phoenix Suns 104, New Orleans Hornets 102



PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns will attempt to carry over their superb defensive effort from Friday against Boston when the formerly streaking New Orleans Hornets come to town.

The Hornets had won 10 in a row before stubbing their toe last night in Sacramento behind a monster performance from DeMarcus Cousins. New Orleans will be the third straight team the Suns have played on the second half of a back-to-back this homestand.

Despite the exploits of Chris Paul (16.5 and 9.7), the Hornets are just average offensively, tied for 16th in the league by scoring 103.2 points per 100 possessions. However, they are elite defensively this year, ranking behind only Chicago and Boston in that regard by giving up just 98.9 per 100.

They’re doing about what they did offensively last season when they also ranked 16th and put up 105.1 per 100, but they were much worse defensively, ranking 22nd and giving up 107.3 per 100. I’m sure the addition of Trevor Ariza has helped in that regard, and new head coach Monty Williams deserves credit as well.

Defense is also the area the Suns will focus on after holding Boston to 71.7 points per 100 possessions, their best defensive showing in years.

“We’ve just got to build on this,” Channing Frye said. “What we have to do is continue to play our style of basketball and build on this defensive game.”

Many analysts have attributed that performance more to the Celtics just having an off night after arriving in the wee hours of the morning with some key players a little banged up.

If the Suns can shut down Paul and the Hornets it will provide more evidence that they really are improving defensively. The Suns had been playing their best defense of the season on their previous road trip before letdowns against Philly and Charlotte.

“I hope everybody will bring the same energy for the next game,” Marcin Gortat said. “We’ve got to start winning some games right now. I still believe we can reach playoffs. If we’re going to play hard like that and play defensively like that, we will be good for the season.”

On the flip side, the Suns’ offense against Boston has only been worse during the Detroit loss, and even that was by percentage points. The Suns’ offensive efficiency against the Celts was 88.9, which means even a moderately below average offensive effort by the Celtics would have won them the game. Playing against another top-three defense, it figures the Suns will need to play closer to their season offensive averages to have a shot tonight.

As dire as the Suns’ situation seems to be three games under .500, they are just three games out of a playoff spot and only two out in the loss column.

Alvin Gentry has repeatedly harped on the need to play better at home, where the Suns are just 12-10, and that needs to start the rest of this homestand if they want those playoff dreams to become reality.

Every time it appears to be time to start focusing on ESPN’s Lotto Machine, the Suns do something like they did Friday night like stymying the mighty Celtics in blowout fashion.

But they have lacked consistency all season, and if the Suns want to legitimately get back in the playoff picture they need to prove that defensive effort against Boston was no fluke starting tonight against the Hornets.

And 1

Backup point guard Goran Dragic will miss tonight’s game after receiving nine stitches in his left foot after stepping on glass Sunday morning at his home. Dragic is day to day. Zabian Dowdell could be in line for some minutes tonight when Steve Nash rests.

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