As much talk as the Phoenix Suns have spouted about making the playoffs, their words have done little to chisel themselves out of the 10th spot in the Western Conference rankings.
That’s not to say they haven’t improved and worked their way into position to do just that. Their intentions have just taken a while to come to fruition. Tonight’s game against the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City is the first opportunity to make a significant, positive move in the standings.
The Jazz (28-26) sit a half game in front of Phoenix (27-26), and a victory will amount to moving a spot outside of the playoffs, just behind the 29-25 Houston Rockets. And it goes without saying that a loss would seriously jeopardize Phoenix’s playoffs hopes.
Considering this season’s one-game history between the Jazz and the Suns, this game will be a good one. In their last meeting on March 14, Phoenix pulled out a gutty 120-111 victory in US Airways Center, surviving a 20-3 run and the bruising interior play of Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors, who ran as an intimidating and over-sized unit last night for coach Ty Corbin.
Then, the Suns needed 51 combined points from Marcin Gortat and Channing Frye, not to mention 21 from Jared Dudley, to ensure the win.
Throwing and landing multiple punches on the Suns wasn’t enough for Utah, and the Suns’ fighting back was a testament to how mentally strong the team really is, a trait that Phoenix showed again last night, when they survived a blown 17-point lead against the Kings to grasp victory in crunch time.
But for the Jazz?
In the grand scheme of things, the Suns’ win back in March was a Utah loss, and it’s likely the Jazz remember the battle well. Utah ran off six straight victories following their loss in Phoenix.
Coming into tonight, however, the Jazz have lost four of six.
All that does is set up a golden opportunity for the fourth-best rebounding team in the NBA to rebound against a team they know they can score against. If DeMarcus Cousins’ career-high 41 points last night against the Suns was any indication, Jefferson, Millsap and Favors have every reason to believe they’ll find the same success against Phoenix as they did in the teams’ first meeting this season.
Then again, there’s not much need for extra motivation on either teams’ end.
They’re both eying the playoffs, and they know the gravity of this game.
Three keys for Phoenix
Find Frye’s confidence. The Suns’ forward has been off of late, shooting just 39.8 percent from the floor in the past eight games. In March against the likes of Millsap, he proved to be a mismatch, pouring in a season-high 26 points. If Phoenix wants to go toe-to-toe with the interior-oriented Jazz, then finding Frye working around the three-point arc is a good way to negate the damage done on the inside. If not, he’ll have to find some way to silence Millsap with his defense. The guess here is the first choice might be the more doable option.
Beware of Tinsley. I must have hopped into a time machine, because with starting point guard Devin Harris quite questionable for tonight’s game, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, grizzled veteran point Jamaal Tinsley will likely be running the second unit. And what he did against Phoenix in March was proof that, well, maybe it’s Tinsley who traveled back in time. In that one, he finished out the game to collect a box score of 11 points and eight assists, nearly orchestrating the Jazz to a victory.
Run with the bench. Lately, Phoenix’s bench unit has been struggling to score. So too has Utah’s second unit despite Ty Corbin similarly going 10 or 11 players deep. The Suns must find a way to force turnovers against a team that traditionally takes good care of the ball. At the very least, they must contest shots, grab the rebound and look to push the pace. Considering the potential points the Jazz can put up against the Suns’ starters, the Phoenix bench needs to pull a little more weight.
Just an FYI: Former Sun Raja Bell won’t be playing after getting some sort of lubrication injected into his knee. Oh, and he probably isn’t too sad about missing this game against his former team. He told the Salt Lake Tribune that playing against friend Steve Nash is a … well, read here.