Watching the Phoenix Suns’ growing chemistry throughout this season has been a bit like, well, watching a chemical reaction in a chemistry lab.
Moving parts once random and sometimes not functional have grouped together like a precipitate to turn into a competitive and, dare I say, fun-to-watch ball club.
And to find the starting point of that reaction might be as simple as looking at the Jan. 12 meeting between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Suns. The two squads meet again Sunday at noon, and there’s a lot that’s changed since Kyrie Irving and Antawn Jamison came out of US Airways Center with a 101-90 victory.
In the month of January, two key starters were struggling. Jared Dudley was a 10.6 point per game scorer and Channing Frye was at 7.2 points per outing.
Sebastian Telfair was receiving DNP-CD’s instead of Ronnie Price.
Michael Redd was playing in his first game as a Phoenix Sun.
The Suns, as a whole, looked destined for the lottery after falling to 4-6 with a loss to a team that, at 5-5, was overachieving.
More than two months later, it’s the Cavaliers who are reeling, having lost five of their last six. Meanwhile, the Suns are withholding hope for a playoff berth. Dudley has been scoring at a 16.1 per game clip in the month of March and Frye has improved to 12.2 points per game.
Telfair has solidified his spot as Nash’s backup as a fiery defender who has been able to lead a much-improved bench unit that also includes Redd.
Still, the way Irving sliced and diced the Phoenix defense in his 10th NBA game will be a threat to the Suns’ hopes of following up a gutsy win against the Indiana Pacers on Friday. That victory was vital coming off two losses to the Magic and Heat that could’ve damaged the Suns’ collective psyche.
“It would have been real tough to go 0-for-4 on this trip or go into the Cleveland game 0-and-3 and put all that pressure on ourselves,” Nash said afterward. “We got some good feelings back. Got some confidence back. So we’ve got a big game in Cleveland we’ve got to win.”
Three keys for Phoenix
Stifle Cleveland’s ball movement. That may be easier done than said. In their 93-80 loss to the Magic on Friday, the Cavs recorded just 10 assists. Said Irving: “I just feel like we have to make regular basketball plays. There were times we became stagnate (Friday), but it happens. We just have to go back to the lab and work on getting better offensively and defensively. It is just about peaks and valleys right now. We have to have a consistent effort.”
If Phoenix can somehow deny Irving the ball after he sets up the offense (Grant Hill, anyone?), forcing the rookie’s teammates to make those basketball plays rather than the savvy, young point guard will work in the Suns’ favor.
Take it to Tristan. With rebounding machine Anderson Varejao injured, rookie Tristan Thompson has slid into the starting center spot as one of the few viable big man options on head coach Byron Scott’s roster. I know it was a year ago, but during the second round of the NCAA Tournament while covering the Arizona Wildcats, I witnessed a 7-foot center named Kyryl Natyazhko knock the Texas Longhorn freshman around — seriously, that happened. It’d be smart for the Suns to attack the slender youngster in the post with Marcin Gortat. I think the Suns will do this anyway, but a little nudge from my end won’t hurt.
Own the rock. A good way for the Suns to get into trouble against the 17-28 Cavs is to let them get out in transition. While his teammates are not overly skilled, Irving pushing the ball off rebounds or turnovers will open up easy opportunities for athletic guys like Thompson, Alonzo Gee and Anthony Parker. If Phoenix can take care of the ball and own the boards — they didn’t do that last time against the Cavs — they’ll be in good shape to take a winnable road game.