Preview: Atlanta Hawks (18-11) at Phoenix Suns (12-17)

Atlanta Hawks 101, Phoenix Suns 99

Hawks

Suns

Both the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns are coming off losses last night, and each of their excuses come with shaking heads.

“We got to the rim,” Hawks guard Jeff Teague told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the Hawks’ loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “That’s what we wanted to do. But we couldn’t finish.”

Meanwhile, the Suns struggled mightily without Steve Nash and Grant Hill in their lineup against the Denver Nuggets as both sat out the second game during a stretch of three games played in three nights. The Suns, like the Hawks, got to the bucket but only hit 12-of-48 shots in the paint to score 24 points up close in a 109-92 loss to the Denver Nuggets.

The two squads’ and their frustrations will clash tonight at US. Airways Center, but for the Suns, there’s obvious reason for optimism. Nash and Hill will return to the lineup that missed them so much, and while they’ve struggled at home with a 5-7 record thus far this year, the reinsertion of the duo could go a long way in the team’s psyche.

Last night, it was never more clear how much Nash’s Phoenix teammates value his presence.

“Peyton Manning didn’t play tonight,” Jared Dudley told Paul Coro, making a parallel to the Indianapolis Colts missing their star quarterback this past NFL season. “When Peyton Manning didn’t play, you saw what the Colts’ record was, right?”

In the last meeting between the Suns and Hawks on Feb. 6, Phoenix was rolling behind its Peyton Manning. Nash scored 24 points and dropped 11 dimes in a 99-90 victory, one of the Suns’ best wins of the season. The Suns had a 20-point lead going into the fourth quarter, and survived a 15-point final period to win by nine.

It was on the eve of Nash’s 38th birthday and the second game of a three-game winning streak that was the best stretch of the season for Phoenix.

Was it an anomaly? Maybe not. Atlanta does rank fifth in the league by giving up only 91.5 points per game, but the Hawks’ offensive production has gone awry in the month of February. After a strong start to the year, the Hawks have gone 2-5 this month and have only scored more that 90 points once in those seven games.

With Nash and Hill back in the rotation, the confidence for Phoenix to pull off a victory against a reeling Atlanta squad should be there. So too will be an opportunity to set things straight in US Airways Center.

Three keys for Phoenix

Push the tempo. While the Hawks have the ability to run with the best teams in the league, that’s not their M.O. Head coach Larry Drew wants his Atlanta team to execute in the half court on the offensive end and control the tempo enough to set up their solid defense. With fresh legs for Nash and Hill, controlling the tempo and getting out in the open court will help get the ball movement flowing, something that didn’t happen last night in Denver.

“The ball has to move and the ball didn’t move,” Dudley told Coro after last night’s loss to the Nugs. “We weren’t playing selfless basketball. The ball was sticking.”

Finding bench production. It’s got to come through at some point, right? Hustle hasn’t been good enough for the second unit of Phoenix, and the bench has struggled to points up in the second and fourth quarters. If the bench can stifle and turn over an Atlanta squad that is struggling to operate on the offensive end — losing bailout man Jamal Crawford in the offseason hasn’t helped a bit, I’m sure — it could lead to opportunities for easy buckets on their own end.

Continue controlling the boards. Zaza Pachulia and Josh Smith can work the glass. Phoenix did a solid job against an athletic Denver team in rebounding the ball last night, though the catch there is the Nuggets were missing their entire starting frontline. Especially with Channing Frye being at a matchup disadvantage against Smith, the Suns will need all hands on deck to rebound the ball to get their offense in a running mode.

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