Preview: Phoenix Suns (9-14) at Atlanta Hawks (16-8)

Phoenix Suns 99, Atlanta Hawks 90



PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns continue their five-game, seven-day road trip with a visit to Atlanta to face the Hawks.

Well, that’s technically not true since the Suns’ game Saturday night took place in the friendly confines of downtown Phoenix, but it feels that way nonetheless after the Suns spent less time at home than they did in their previous stops in New Orleans and Houston, a point that Alvin Gentry’s wife brought up to the head coach.

Players and coaches barely had time to say hello to their wives and kids and pick up a clean pair of underwear before heading east once again.

The Arizona Republic’s Paul Coro even joked that he would be staying in a hotel Saturday night because the one day stop in Phoenix felt more like another leg of the road trip than a home game.

It certainly seems crazy for the schedule makers to send the Suns home for a game when they were already in Texas and Louisiana before heading to Georgia and then all the way up to Wisconsin, but this is only the start as the Suns’ first three games in a row stretch is just a week away.

In Atlanta the Suns will find a Hawks team that has dropped a pair of home games to Philadelphia and Memphis after reeling off 12 wins in 15 games.

Before these past two games Atlanta seemingly didn’t miss a beat after two-time All-Star Al Horford went down for the bulk of the season with a shoulder injury on Jan. 11. Joe Johnson (18.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.6 apg) and Josh Smith (15.0 and 9.0) are both having nice seasons in his absence, but Atlanta is particularly shorthanded up front for this one with backup center Jason Collins out with a sprained elbow as well.

The Hawks are a solid offensive team (11th at 102.1 per 100 possessions) and even better defensively (sixth, 96.0).

On paper the Hawks are certainly a better team than the Suns, who rank tied for 20th in offensive efficiency and 23rd in defensive efficiency, so if Atlanta beats them on talent that’s something Gentry can live with. But after Phoenix’s lethargic effort Friday night in Houston, the Suns’ coach will not stand for him team to be beaten badly in the energy department.

“To me that’s the most important thing,” Gentry said. “We can’t do anything if we don’t start out playing with energy. There’s no excuse. We can miss shots, we can be outmanned, we can do a lot of things, but there is no excuse for not playing with energy.”

The Suns’ bench unit played with superb energy Saturday against Charlotte after lacking much spirit in Houston, so it will be interesting to see the kind of effort they bring tonight. Gentry dangled a bit of a carrot by riding that group to the finish line versus the Bobcats due to their quality play as he often did with the Suns’ outstanding bench mob in 2009-10.

This game will be particularly important for Lopez, who needs to follow up his 11-point, four-rebound, fourth-quarter outburst with another solid game against an Atlanta squad missing two centers. Aside from part of 2009-10 he has lacked consistency his whole career, and he’s running out of time to prove to the Suns he belongs in their future.

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