The Phoenix Suns kick off a difficult stretch of three games in three nights when they take on the Golden State Warriors tonight in Oakland. The Suns are enjoying one of their better runs this season, having won four out of their last five games, including Saturday’s victory at Sacramento. The Warriors are also playing well and have won two straight versus Western Conference playoff contenders.
The Suns will be having flashbacks to seasons’ past when they meet a Warriors team that is fourth in the league in points per game and eighth in offensive efficiency. This has been a down year offensively for the Suns. They are averaging a paltry 93.4 points per game and less than 100 points per 100 possessions. Both of these are record lows for the Steve Nash-era in Phoenix. The Suns will need more of the stellar defensive play that held the Sacramento Kings to only 35 percent shooting Saturday if they hope to contain Golden State’s explosive offense.
Leading the defensive effort will be 39-year-old veteran Grant Hill, who added Tyreke Evans to the ever-expanding list of physical scorers he has shut down this season (Make room, Carmelo.) Hill has always been a strong defender during his time in Phoenix, but he seems to have really dedicated himself this year to shutting down the game’s elite. He will have his hands with any one of the Warriors’ perimeter players.
Monta Ellis, one of the most versatile scorers in the league, has topped 30 points in three of his last five games. He dropped 48 against the Thunder last Tuesday, tying Kobe Bryant for the most points scored in a single game this season. He also dropped 33 against the Jazz on Feb. 2 and in last night’s matchup with Houston. With Jared Dudley the probable starter at shooting guard, the task of defending the speedy Ellis will likely fall to Hill.
Also dangerous on the perimeter and playing well as of late is Stephen Curry. Curry lit up Denver for 36 on 13-of-17 shooting Thursday. He is connecting on over 43 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc this season.
In watching the Warriors best the Rockets last night, there were two things I found very impressive. First was rookie Klay Thompson. He connected on 4-of-6 from three-point range en route to scoring 14 points. Thompson is fourth in the league in three-point accuracy (.493). He trails Mike Miller of the Heat, Ray Allen of the Celtics, and teammate and league-leader Brandon Rush, who is shooting an unworldly 56.3 percent from downtown. Thompson’s confidence and comfort on the court is something that stands out right away when watching him play. He seems to have no problem handling the scoring load for the Warrior’s strong second unit.
Also impressive is the defense of Ekpe Udoh, Golden State’s shot blocker off the bench. Udoh was able to contain Rockets big man Luis Scola when the two were matched up in the post. There is no doubt Udoh is among the best low-post defenders in the league.
Marcin Gortat will look to get back to his double-double ways against Udoh and starter Andris Biedrins. Gortat, thought by some to be a candidate for the backup center slot on the Western Conference All-Star roster, was passed over for Memphis’ Marc Gasol. The Suns’ leading scorer and rebounder will need to have a strong night on the offensive end to help the Suns keep pace with a Golden State team that can score 110 points in its sleep.
Also key will be the Suns’ lone All Star selection, Steve Nash. Nash is currently the leading assist man in the league, averaging 10.3 per game. This season, Steve has had a scoring switch he seemingly can flip on and off at will. Nash scored 30 points on 16 shots earlier this month at New Orleans. Yet against Sacramento on Saturday, he scored only four points on seven shots. Nash is currently third in the league in field-goal percentage and is first among guards, so his low scoring nights have not really been the result of poor shooting, but simply the decision not to shoot as much. He is having his best season from an offensive efficiency standpoint since his back-to-back MVP seasons. Nash will likely have to play distributor and scorer against this hot Warriors team.
Suns’ Keys to Victory
- Close out on shooters. Golden State leads the league in 3-point accuracy and is sixth in 3-point attempts. Curry, Ellis, Thompson, Rush, and Dorell Wright are all threats from deep. The Suns must close out strong without giving up a driving lane to keep the Warriors from scoring at will. Gortat and Frye will also have to keep David Lee contained in the paint, so that the perimeter defenders won’t have to sag off the Warriors’ shooters too much in help defense.
- The second unit battle. The Suns’ second unit has been both a strength and a weakness at different points this season. The bench was outscored by Houston’s 57-13 Thursday night, but Markieff Morris’ 18 points off the bench against Sacramento were a big reason the Suns came out of that game with a victory. The reserves will have to score and play strong defense to keep the game from getting out of hand with the starters on the bench.
- To score or not to score. Golden State is playing the second half of a back-to-back. David Lee and Monta Ellis both played over 40 minutes last night. The Suns, coming in with a day of rest, could try to keep the pace slow, something the tired Warriors might be amenable to. On the other hand, Phoenix might want to hearken back to the “Seven Seconds or Less” era, run the Warriors down, and try to top the century mark on the scoreboard. This shouldn’t be impossible for Phoenix as the Warriors are second-to-last in points-per-game allowed. Whatever the choice, the Suns must dictate the pace, whether it be fast or slow, if they want to continue this hot streak a bit longer.