Preview: Phoenix Suns (23-24) at Indiana Pacers (27-18)

Phoenix Suns 113, Indiana Pacers 111

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The Phoenix Suns used a valiant effort to fight their way back into the playoff race last homestand. Now they must make sure they don’t give back too much of that ground on this road trip.

Toward that goal the Suns visit the Indiana Pacers tonight in a crucial game after collapsing late in Miami on Tuesday and getting obliterated defensively the next night in Orlando.

But these aren’t your big brother’s Pacers, as this matchup will be Phoenix’s third in four games against one of the top four teams in the Eastern Conference.

After sneaking into the playoffs eight games below .500 last season, the Pacers have established themselves as one of the better teams in basketball, particularly at home where they are 14-6.

Indiana’s greatest virtue is its depth, as eight players average over 9.5 points per game yet only leading scorer Danny Granger is over 13 ppg.

The Pacers have utilized the same starting lineup in all but two games this season (when Granger missed a pair of games due to a sprained ankle and food poisoning), and they added to their bench at the trade deadline when they acquired former Sun Leandro Barbosa to join a reserve corps that also includes a familiar face in Lou Amundson.

As always seems to be the case in this wacky NBA season one way or another, the scheduling gods may have given the Suns a favor in this one. The Pacers roared back from a 22-point deficit last night to take down the Wizards in Washington and then had to fly all the way back to Indiana for this one.

The Suns should also be smarting after having been blown out for the first time since starting their 11-3 run Wednesday night in Orlando.

Their defense looked a step slow against the Magic after that draining game in Miami, but the Suns have no such excuse as the rested squad in this one.

It seems to be an annual tradition for the Suns to get swept on the Miami-Orlando back-to-back, but I’m interested to see how they respond in this one. Will they get right back on a roll by beating a solid Pacers squad or did they just take advantage of one of the longer home stretches any team will see?

I am also interested to see how Marcin Gortat responds to arguably his worst game since emerging with Phoenix. Gortat managed just four points on 1-for-7 shooting against his old nemesis Dwight Howard last time out. It almost seemed like he was trying too hard to the extent that he fumbled away many Steve Nash passes. The Suns need Gortat to put that performance behind him and resume his stellar season.

If tonight’s game is anything like Phoenix’s last two visits to the Fieldhouse, we are all in for quite a treat.

Last season Channing Frye tore out the Pacers’ hearts by drilling a game-winning jumper at the overtime buzzer, and the season before Phoenix blew a 24-point lead during a stretch in which they made blowing double-digit leads seem easy.

With a winnable game in Cleveland looming Sunday afternoon, the Suns can still come home with the split that would represent a successful road trip.

It won’t be easy, but it is what the Suns need to do to stay in the playoff race with Houston now back to 2 1/2 games ahead of Phoenix for the final playoff spot in the West.

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