The defending champions come to town tonight to take on a Suns team that looked to be every bit the equal of the Oklahoma City Thunder last night — until the fourth quarter rolled around, that is.
Phoenix has the firepower in their first unit to matchup with almost any team in the league, including the Mavericks and their third-ranked defense. In fact, the Suns’ starters lead the league in +/- on the year. The team also seems to be getting more and more comfortable with assistant coach Elston Turner’s defensive schemes; the Suns are currently 18th in the league in defensive rating (a measure of points scored per 100 possessions) after toiling in the lower third of the league for much of the season. Combine that progress with a Mavericks team in the midst of a brutal stretch — two back-to-backs last week, plus a back-to-back-to-back stretch that begins for them tonight in Phoenix and continues to Sacramento and Golden State — and the Suns should stand a decent chance of pulling off the upset.
Be that as it may, nothing has been predictable for Phoenix so far this season. They’ve lost to worse lottery teams (New Orleans, New Jersey) and beaten some of the best teams in the Western Conference (Memphis, both Los Angeles teams). Much of that volatility stems from the second unit; between shifting rotations, a dearth of shot creation and defensive woes that ebb and flow, the Suns bench tends to give back whatever lead the starters generate in the first quarter, turning the second half into a crap shoot that the Suns aren’t necessarily equipped to win.
On the offensive end, these two teams produce very similar results. Both are shooting just over 48 percent in effective field goal percentage, which takes into account the added value of 3-pointers. They turn the ball over at very similar rates per 100 possessions and take a very similar number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt. They even rebound at similar rates. Where they differ is in their relative defensive prowess. Phoenix surrenders 5.5 more points per 100 possessions than the Mavericks do, and that margin is the difference between a team that’s 10th in efficiency differential (Dallas) and 20th (Phoenix). That strength for the Mavericks could likely determine tonight’s game.
If it does, it would break a few of the trends coming into tonight, while reinforcing another. The Mavericks have lost four road games; they haven’t won away from Dallas since February 17th against the Sixers. The Suns, meanwhile, have won five of their last six games at home, with the lone defeat a two-point loss to the Warriors. Unfortunately, Dallas has defeated Phoenix in their past eight meetings. With the Mavericks getting healthier every day and Dirk Nowitzki seemingly finding his lungs after coming into this season in anything but prime shape, there’s a high likelihood that streak gets extended to nine tonight.
- Rookie Markieff Morris seems to have hit the rookie wall. He’s now played more games for the Suns than he did last year at Kansas, and the abbreviated schedule has surely done him no favors. Morris’s red hot shooting off the bench was one of the stories of the first half of the season for Phoenix, but he’s posted seven straight games of sub-33 percent shooting from the field, including two straight without a made field goal.
- Get ready for the “Could Steve Nash end up in Dallas?” storyline to be pounded on tonight in a national TV broadcast. With the trade deadline fast approaching, player movement is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, and Nash’s name is often the first out of people’s mouths when they talk trades. The Mavericks have little to offer the Suns in return for Nash, but that won’t prevent speculation about his destination this summer.