The Phoenix Suns look to get back to .500 for the first time since Jan. 8 when they take on the Detroit Pistons tonight in US Airways Center.
The Suns, playing their third game in as many nights, are now firmly in contention for a playoff spot in the West. Phoenix currently sits in 10th position, a half game behind the Minnesota Timberwolves and 2 1/2 games behind the Denver Nuggets. If the Suns are going to insert themselves into the playoff picture, they will have to take care of business against lottery-bound squads like the Pistons.
Detroit is playing the third game of a five-game Western Conference road trip. The Pistons lost to the Jazz on Monday, but rebounded nicely to beat the Kings 124-112 on Wednesday. The victory against the Kings showed the true strengths of this Detroit team. Greg Monroe matched a career-high in scoring with 32 points to go along with 11 boards. The second-year center from Georgetown shot an incredible 15 of 20 from the field though he took only three free throws in 35 minutes of play.
The other strong performance came from point guard Rodney Stuckey. Stuckey is averaging 33 points, 6.5 assists, and 4.5 rebounds thus far on the Pistons’ road trip. He has shot better than 50 percent from the field in both games while taking at least 11 free throws. Stuckey also hit four of his six three-point attempts against the Kings. Listed at 6-foot-5, Stuckey with his quickness and scoring ability would be a matchup nightmare for Steve Nash. It is more likely that Grant Hill will end up guarding him with Nash on rookie Brandon Knight.
Both Nash and Grant Hill should be well-rested after sitting out last night’s game against the Clippers. The Suns outscored Los Angeles 27-12 in the fourth quarter to claim a 91-87 road victory. The Suns getting a win against a quality opponent without the help of Nash or Hill is impressive on its own. When you consider, however, that the Clippers had a better FG% than the Suns, grabbed more offensive and defensive rebounds, gave out more assists, and only turned the ball over 10 times, the win becomes almost unbelievable. The Clippers’ seven missed free throws and the Suns’ nine three-point buckets were the difference in this matchup between Pacific Division foes.
The Suns’ last two victories have come with the help of scoring outbursts from unlikely places. Last night’s win was spurred by 21 points from reserve guard Shannon Brown, who started in place of Grant Hill (Sebastian Telfair filled in for Nash.) Brown buried three out of five from beyond the arc and earned an impressive 10 free throws. Brown’s season-high scoring performance might give him some much needed confidence as the Suns continue their playoff push in the final third of the season.
Phoenix’s victory over the Jazz was fueled by 26 points from Channing Frye, also a season high. Channing found his shooting stroke in a big way going 10 of 18 from the field and 5-of-10 from beyond the arc. Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley also topped the 20-point mark in the game.
The Suns are an extremely balanced team right now. Since the All-Star break, they have shown the ability, up and down the roster, to pick up the slack. In the last nine games, the Suns have had six different leading scorers. That is evidence of a team playing unselfish and confident basketball. Phoenix must not become over-confident and look past this Pistons team though. Detroit is only three games out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.
Above them are Milwaukee, New York, and Cleveland, three teams who will have to adjust to new realities after major changes in the last few days. The Bucks will have to learn on the fly how to accommodate Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh into their rotation if they want to maintain their tenuous hold on the eighth spot. The Knicks just fired head coach Mike D’Antoni in the hopes of saving their somewhat disastrous season. Whether or not this was a good move by New York’s management and owner will be revealed sooner rather than later. Finally, the Cavaliers will have to find a way to replace their backup point guard Ramon Sessions, who was traded to the Lakers yesterday. Despite starting rookie Kyrie Irving’s breakout season, Session’s 10 points and five assists per game will be missed, especially by a team trying to remain in the hunt.
For the Pistons, the time to make a move is now. With how well Stuckey and Monroe are playing, tonight’s game will be anything but a breeze for the Suns.
Three Keys to Victory
- Getting physical with Monroe. Despite his great size and emerging skill set, Monroe is not a very physical player. He takes just over four free throws a game and records less than one block. Marcin Gortat must take it at Monroe on both ends of the floor to put the Suns in position to win. Marcin must be careful not to pick up cheap fouls though like he did against the Wolves’ Nikola Pekovic. Gortat cannot be effective if he doesn’t stay on the court.
- A Stuckey situation. Stuckey is likely to see 40+ minutes against the Suns tonight. That means that even if Grant Hill guards him exclusively, somebody else will have to step up to the challenge when Hill is taking a breather on the bench. This responsibility will likely fall on Shannon Brown’s shoulders. Brown is quick enough to stay in front of Stuckey, but he must also be disciplined in his approach or Stuckey will simply draw fouls and get to the line. If Brown is able to defend Stuckey well, it could free up Hill to guard somebody else.
- Defending Tayshaun Prince. If Hill is on Prince, Tayshaun may not be heard from much in this game. If however, Hill is occupied elsewhere, defending Prince will likely fall to Jared Dudley. Neither Dudley nor Prince is exceedingly fast, but Prince is a very sneaky lefty with a solid jumper and long stride. Even if he doesn’t have blow-by speed, Prince’s length allows him to finish at the rim in fewer steps than the average player. Dudley will have to be aggressive and physical with Tayshaun. If the Gortat and Dudley can shut down their men, it’s likely that Stuckey will decide to take the game over and potentially shoot the Pistons out of this one altogether.