PHOENIX — Fourteen games remain on the Phoenix Suns’ schedule, plenty of time for a team on the verge of surpassing preseason expectations to slip into the playoff race.
Yet, this upcoming three-game stretch that starts out against the Sacramento Kings on the road tonight is still a win-or-die situation for head coach Alvin Gentry’s club. The Kings, who sit only above the New Orleans Hornets in the Western Conference standings, would be a momentum-building win, as the Suns continue on their road journey to Utah and Denver, the No. 8 and No. 7 seeds in the conference.
“I’m sick of watching that Phoenix team in 10th, 11th place right now,” center Marcin Gortat said. “Hopefully, we are going to do better. I want to see our team in the top eight, top six.”
Added newly-inserted starter Shannon Brown: “We just got to go out and play every game like it’s our last game. Like Coach said, every game for us right now is a playoff game right now. One win, we’re in, one loss we could be out. We just have to approach it like our last.”
If that sense of urgency is true to their hearts, then winning against Sacramento should be doable, but unlike the Hornets that showed up in Phoenix on Sunday with an anemic-looking roster, the Kings have enough talent to cause problems.
The Kings can ring up the points with 17-plus a night scorers Marcus Thornton, DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans, and Cousins is also a threat inside as the NBA’s fourth-best rebounder at 11.1 boards per game. Add in the recent pick-up of wing Terrence Williams, then rookie guards Jimmer Fredette and starting point guard Isaiah Thomas — a solid story on Mr. Irrelevant, who’s averaging 14.8 points and 5.3 assists as a starter, can be found here – and Sacramento has the pieces to steal a game from anyone.
On the year, the Kings have recorded victories against the Lakers, Thunder, Spurs, Celtics, Pacers, Mavericks and Grizzlies, a sign they’re troubled more by youth and inconsistent play than any lack of talent.
For Phoenix, a focused victory on top of Sunday’s drubbing of the Hornets only keeps them paced with the Jazz and the Houston Rockets — the latter sit two games ahead of Phoenix in the last playoff spot.
“It’s going to be a very difficult stretch,” Steve Nash said. “We’ve got to come to play every night and try to see if we can win and give ourselves a chance to get in. It’s exciting, we’ve got to just make the most of this opportunity.”
Three keys for Phoenix
Get Brown involved. It’s an odd thought that we’re talking about Shannon Brown being an efficient player and now starter for the Suns, but after Grant Hill’s injury, that’s just what’s happening. Fitting in has been a slow yet progressive process throughout the season, and according to HoopData.com, his True Shooting Percentage has risen to 59.5 percent in the past 10 games, nine percentage points higher than his season average. Coupled with his athleticism, Brown’s involvement on boths ends will help counter the offensive attack of Evans and Thornton, who is questionable tonight with a leg that is “about to explode.”
Force jump shots. While the Kings can pump in the points, the Suns can’t let Cousins, at 17.7 points per game, get touches in the paint. Nor can Phoenix allow the likes of the physical Tyreke Evans attack the cup for scores or kickouts that help him lead the team with 4.8 assists per game.
Said Brown of Evans: “He’s deceivingly quick with the dribble. He can get to the basket. He finds people. You just got to stay in front of him, try to contain him and make him shoot as many outside jump shots as possible.”
Making the Kings shoot mid-range shots on the move seems like the best bet to keep the percentages to a minimum.
Control the tempo. Though Sacramento leads the league in pace, the Suns should decide when to run with the Kings and when to control the ball in the half court, as to allow their defense control of the game. The Kings give up the most points in the NBA and own the 28th best defensive rating, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Phoenix can find success by being patient and keeping the ball movement to a premium in the halfcourt, waiting for a defensive breakdown to allow them open shots.