The Phoenix Suns play host to the NBA’s hottest team, the Memphis Grizzlies, Saturday night at US Airways Center. The Grizzlies have won nine of their last 10 games and 11 of 13 overall. Through this amazing run, Memphis has climbed into the top half of the Western Conference playoff picture and find themselves in a tie for third with the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Suns are also playing well as of late – winning four of their five games since returning from the All-Star break. Those four victories have all come at home. The Suns’ sole loss in this run came on the road at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder Wednesday night.
The Suns were up 16 points with 16 minutes left before the Thunder came storming back (no pun intended) to win 115-104. The Suns nearly choked away another victory the following night in Dallas. Up by nine with 2:45 to play in the fourth, the Suns failed to score another point, but somehow hung on to win 96-94 thanks in no part to some shoddy offensive possessions by Dallas that saw Roddy Beaubois take and miss the final two shots of the game. The Suns will need to play all 48 minutes if they are to defeat a hungry Memphis squad who are eager to show every team in the league how good they are even without their star power forward, Zach Randolph.
Randolph’s continued absence, which could end as early as next week, may be the key if the Suns are to claim their second victory over Memphis this year. In their first meeting, Phoenix built a 16-point halftime lead, but needed two late free throws from Jared Dudley to secure the 86-84 win. It was a sloppy game in which neither side shot the ball well. The Suns came out on top because of their performance on the glass. Phoenix outrebounded the Grizzlies despite Marc Gasol pulling down 13 boards.
For Phoenix to win the rebounding battle again, they’ll need center Marcin Gortat to continue his double-double ways. Gortat has been a force of late scoring at the rim and pulling down rebounds. Marcin scored a career-high 28 points against the Thunder and followed it up with 16 against the Mavericks. His matchup with All-Star Marc Gasol will be something to watch closely. Gortat, however, cannot bring the Suns a win on his own.
They’ll also need Channing Frye and Markieff Morris to shake off their run of inconsistency. One or both of these big men need to assert themselves rebounding and shooting the ball if the Suns hope to be in this game. Frye and Morris can both knock down shots from beyond the arc. Frye is among the league’s best if he has it going. If they can force Memphis to honor that shot and play them on the perimeter, it will open up the middle for Steve Nash and Marcin Gortat on pick-and-roll and dribble penetration from the wing.
If however, both guys continue their run of poor play, Memphis will simply sag off of them and clog the key in an effort to keep the Suns out of the paint. If Memphis is able to force Phoenix into jump shots all night long, this game could get out of hand in a hurry.
The other matchup to watch will be perimeter defense. Rudy Gay, the Grizzlies’ max-money-man, will have to deal with veteran Grant Hill hounding him all night long. Gay is just another in a string of tough defensive assignments for Hill, who has already matched up with Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki this week. Gay may have young legs, but Hill’s desire and veteran savvy have shut down better players than Rudy already this year.
On the flip side, Tony Allen will more than likely be matched up on Jared Dudley, Phoenix’s leading scorer in their game with Dallas. Widely considered one of the league’s premier perimeter defenders, Allen will no doubt make Dudley or whoever he’s matched up on work for every bucket. Jared will need to have his outside shot going to force hard close outs from Allen. That way Jared can use his very effective shot fake to open up a lane for penetration.
One thing that Dudley has struggled with this season is finishing at the rim. This task won’t get easier against a Memphis team which is 11th best in team blocks. He must use his body effectively and get the ball on the glass quickly to score against bigger and more athletic defenders.
Three Keys to Victory
- Distribution battle. Mike Conley is one of the quickest point guards in the league. Like Steve Nash, he can play the scorer or distributor role. This will be a tough matchup for Steve to contain the speedy lefty who has posted two 20-point games since returning from the All-Star break. One approach may be for Nash to sag a step or two off of Conley who is shooting less than 35 percent from beyond the arc and connects on less than one three ball per game. That extra step could help Nash stay in front, but he must be careful not to help too far off of Conley when the ball isn’t in his hands as Mike is a much better shooter off the catch than off the dribble.
- Scoring. The Grizzlies are seventh best in points per game and eighth in defensive efficiency, according to ESPN’s John Hollinger. The Suns are more likely to win a game in the 100’s than a game in the 80’s. Memphis is used to grinding out games, but they may not have the extra gear necessary to keep up with Phoenix when they get out and run. A high-scoring affair with plenty of hits from beyond the arc is Phoenix’s best chance for a victory.
- Rotation management. Memphis has several players who can come off the bench and light up the scoreboard, including former USC standout OJ Mayo. The Suns’ bench must be up to the task of playing hard on defense and consistently putting the ball through the hoop. It will be up to coach Alvin Gentry to pick the right second unit combination. Gentry has been a bit erratic in his lineups lately. Case in point being the 17 minutes played by Hakim Warrick after he had only tallied 16 minutes total in the previous 16 games. It was nice to see Hakim step up and contribute, but it’s also possible that what the second unit needs is consistency from the coach in order to learn their role and grow into them. What’s clear is that the reserves have been letting opponents back into games instead of holding down the fort until Phoenix’s veteran starters return.