Preview: Phoenix Suns (4-7) at San Antonio Spurs (8-4)

San Antonio Spurs 102, Phoenix Suns 91



PHOENIX — Every team will face arduous stretches during this truncated season, but few will match what the Phoenix Suns will encounter the next week and a half.

The Suns will bounce around the country for five games in the next 10 days, going from Phoenix to San Antonio to Chicago to New York to Boston to Dallas and then back to Phoenix for a back-to-back against Toronto.

This so-called “Toy Story 3″ trip (it is necessitated by the Jan. 18-22 showing of Disney on Ice in US Airways Center) kicks off tonight in the Alamo City against the Suns’ old rivals the Spurs.

The Spurs thus far have looked like world beaters at home where they are undefeated but are winless on the road in four attempts.

They have hardly missed a beat without injured shooting guard Manu Ginobili, winning five of seven since his injury. Tony Parker has stepped up in Manu’s absence, scoring at least 19 in four of his last five.

Perhaps more than any other team in the league the Spurs are careful to manage the workloads of their top players to keep them fresh for the stretch run. Only Parker (31.8 mpg) and Richard Jefferson (30.8) average more than 26 minutes. Tim Duncan at 25.9 mpg has only played long enough to average 11.8 points and 6.6 boards per game as the Spurs rely strongly on a big man rotation involving DeJuan Blair, Tiago Splitter and Matt Bonner all receiving significant minutes.

These days the Spurs are a grind-it-out defensive team as much as the Suns are a Seven Seconds or Less kind of squad. San Antonio is actually the fifth-best offensive team with an offensive rating of 105.3, but the Spurs rank 23rd in defensive efficiency at 102.1.

The Suns, however, are becoming more like the Suns of old after Friday’s loss to New Jersey. Despite missing Steve Nash the Suns actually enjoyed their second-best offensive performance of the season with a 113.2 efficiency (in part because the Nets are the league’s worst defensive team) yet it doubled as their worst defensive effort by a good margin after yielding a pathetic 120.9 to D-Will’s team. The Suns now rank a more normal 10th offensively and 18th defensively.

Phoenix will certainly have to defend like it did to start the year to have a chance in any game this road trip because, as discussed yesterday, the Suns face five of the better teams in the league. Although there will only be one back-to-back (Chicago-New York), this trip is also unusual in terms of the distance traveled between with locations with only the New York-Boston flight being short.

“We play five outstanding teams that will all be in the playoffs, so guys have to be ready and healthy, we have to pick it up a notch for us to come back on a positive note from this road trip,” Dudley said.

Already on a three-game losing streak entering the week, this is the kind of trip that can really bury a team. If the Suns go 1-4 (which I feel is the best they will do) then they are sitting at 5-11. A 0-5 trip puts them at 4-12, and the schedule doesn’t get too much easier from there.

Therefore, this trip will go a long way toward determining whether the Suns can hang around in the playoff race or whether it will be time to start thinking lottery because the Suns will either prove themselves as a team that can beat good teams on the road or they will fall to the bottom of the standings by trip’s end.

“We’re just trying to go out there and steal some games and start building our confidence,” Dudley said. “This is a game that once we start winning a couple games confidence will grow. You don’t want to lose too many because you don’t want to look back and be so far out of it.”

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