Preview: Phoenix Suns (2-3) at Dallas Mavericks (2-4)

Dallas Mavericks 98, Phoenix Suns 89

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PHOENIX — Count the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks as two teams that the NBA lockout and the loss of a real training camp has hampered to start the season. In fact, label the Suns and Mavericks, who will meet in American Airlines Center tonight at 6:30 p.m. MST, as two of the most question-laden teams in the NBA.

But let’s remember who these teams are: Phoenix was an average ball club last season with a roster relatively unchanged while Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks are the defending NBA champs.

Sure, the Mavs are the defending champs without Tyson Chandler, DeShawn Stevenson and J.J. Barea, three players that took their unique roles elsewhere. That doesn’t mean Dallas isn’t beginning to find itself in its seventh game of the season.

The Mavs are coming off an impressive 100-87 victory against the previously-undefeated Oklahoma City Thunder, and at home where they’ve beaten Phoenix the last seven times, it won’t be easy for the Suns.

“I know they’re struggling right now,” Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said, “but at the end of the year they’re going to be right there.

“I don’t think they’re in any kind of panic situation or anything,” he added. “I know they lost a couple of guys but they’re still a good basketball team.”

So how do the Suns stop Dirk?

Grant Hill has traditionally been the tool of choice in stopping Nowitzki. However, he’s only played more than 30 minutes in one of Phoenix’s first five games and that might be due to a tender knee. Gentry will have to reach into his back pocket to figure this one out.

“We go there, you got to play solid basketball and you’ve got to know guarding Dirk (Nowitzki) is a really tough matchup,” Phoenix’s head coach said. “It doesn’t matter who you play on him. Our hands are full.”

Channing Frye is a big risk in handling Nowitzki on the perimeter so that leaves the Suns with the options of Hakim Warrick — not known for his defense, although the length couldn’t hurt — and an undersized Josh Childress if Gentry will pull him off the bench.

The intriguing matchup would be rookie Markieff Morris getting a stab at Dirk and physically it might be a good idea. Although Nowitzki could quickly put Keef in foul trouble, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gentry dabble with Morris on the German for a few minutes here and there, just to see how the rookie handles it (by the way, Morris is killing it across the board in advanced stats).

Whatever the case may be, look for the Suns to implement some traps on Nowitzki and keep an eye out for how well the help defense is rotating behind said trap.

“Dallas is tough at home, but they’re definitely beatable,” Suns guard Ronnie Price said. “I think some of the defensive things that we’ve been doing … if we come out and execute the way we know we can, and play a full solid game instead of one quarter off and one quarter on, I think Dallas has matchup problems with us.”

Something (anything?) from the bigs

I wrote in the Golden State preview that the Suns must win the matchups in the paint. Well, that didn’t happen as I thought it would. Marcin Gortat and Robin Lopez were quiet throughout, and the duo of 7-footers saw time on the pine in the fourth quarter in favor of Morris and Frye.

As a resilient individual — or perhaps an unrealistic one — I’ll again say that Gortat and Lopez must give Phoenix something extra coming off a disappointing performance in which they combined for seven points and seven rebounds in 30 combined minutes.

Said Gentry: “It comes down to execution, and obviously rebounding the basketball against that team is important.”

Marion questionable against Suns

Former Suns All-Star and current Maverick Shawn Marion is questionable against the Suns tonight after missing the morning shootaround with an illness, according to ESPN Dallas’ Jeff Caplan. If Marion isn’t able to go, look for head coach Rick Carlisle to give former Laker Lamar Odom his first start for the Mavs.

Odom has struggled so far, and his minutes have dwindled. But if memory serves me correctly, he’s had the Suns’ number and presents another matchup problem when on the court with Nowitzki.

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