Preview: Houston Rockets (24-21) at Phoenix Suns (22-22)

Phoenix Suns 99, Houston Rockets 86

Rockets

Suns

It was not long ago that the Phoenix Suns dropped their fourth straight game to the Los Angeles Lakers to fall a season-worst seven games below .500.

That sure feels like more than the month ago it was, but after morphing into one of the hottest teams in the NBA, the Suns can earn a winning record for the first time all season with a victory over the Houston Rockets tonight in US Airways Center.

And if that isn’t enough to play for, a win would also pull them even in the loss column with the Rockets for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Having already dropped a pair of games to the Rockets earlier this season, a loss would clinch the season tiebreaker for Houston, which amazingly is now crucial after Phoenix has won 10 of 13 games to barge into the playoff picture.

The Rockets, meanwhile, have been as cold as the Suns have been hot. They have lost seven of 10 games, including a five-game losing streak to open the month to fall from fighting for a first-round home series to just fighting to stay in the playoffs altogether.

Star guard Kyle Lowry has missed the past five games after being hospitalized with a bacterial infection, which has put the starting point guard onus on former Sun Goran Dragic. Dragic has thrived in this role, averaging 16.0 points and 9.4 assists per game these past five games.

Dragic also played one of his better games of the season off the bench on Feb. 9 in Phoenix when he poured in 11 points and 11 assists. I’m sure he will once again have a little extra in his tank to prove the Suns made a mistake getting rid of them.

Along with the Lowry injury, the Rockets are a banged-up bunch with Kevin Martin sitting out the past three games with a strained right shoulder (he could return against Phoenix) and Chandler Parsons missing yesterday’s Clippers game with the flu (he will return tonight).

We could be in for lots of scoring tonight as the Rockets have used the league’s eighth-best offense to become a playoff team most of the year, and the Suns have gotten back to their old offensive ways during this recent hot stretch. During the past six games, Phoenix’s offensive efficiencies have read like this: 118.5, 105.8, 120.0, 126.5, 107.7, 104.3.

Amazingly, their only loss during this stretch came during their best offensive performance of the year, but that’s only because it was coupled with their second-worst defensive outing of the season when they yielded 129.6 per 100 possessions to the Timberwolves last Monday.

During the All-Star break, I wrote about how the fall of the Suns’ offense from historically great to mediocre is the biggest reason the team found itself out of the playoff hunt. It should be no surprise that Phoenix has gotten on a roll just as its offense started turning in some elite performances.

With the harrowing road trip looming that starts in Miami and Orlando and continues to Indiana, this is a game the Suns just have to win. With as difficult as their schedule is the rest of the way they must take care of all of their home games against the teams competing with them for the final playoff spots in the West.

The game will also serve as a litmus test of sorts as the Rockets handled the Suns fairly easily twice in early February before the team went on this run.

Alvin Gentry hates to label games as must-win games particularly with this much time left to go in the season — because what do you say to your team if you lose? — but this is a contest the Suns really need to put in the win column.

And 1

This game will also feature the first matchup between the Morris twins. Marcus Morris was on a D-League assignment for the teams’ first two meetings but played a season-high 16 minutes in Houston’s loss to the Clippers yesterday. Despite Markieff’s recent slump, the Suns’ Morris is still having a much better season with Marcus struggling to the tune of a -3.54 PER. Knowing how close the twins are, I’m sure this game will be special for Markieff, especially if he gets to match up with his brother one-on-one.

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