Preview: Phoenix Suns (30-27) at Memphis Grizzlies (33-23)

Memphis Grizzlies 104, Phoenix Suns 93

Suns

Grizzlies

The Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies just might be two of the most improved teams since the All-Star break, and they’ll meet tonight in attempts to continue their steady pushes for playoff spots.

Of course, the difference is in just where they’re going. The more desperate Suns have little room for error in this three-game swing through the Grizzlies tonight, Houston on Friday and San Antonio on Saturday. Phoenix stands a game behind the Denver Nuggets, who sit in the eighth and final playoff spot.

Meanwhile, Memphis is running through solid Western Conference playoff squads like a recently-sharpened buzzsaw, and its currently eyeing the fourth seed. The Grizzlies have gone 5-1 in the month of April with wins against Oklahoma City, Miami, Dallas, and the Los Angeles Clippers.

“Everyone is really close, and we moved that much closer to the fourth spot,” Memphis guard O.J. Mayo said after the win over the Clippers on Monday. “We’ve just got to keep playing well.”

As far as statistics go, the Grizzlies don’t stand out in many categories as a whole. They’re 20th in offensive rating and eighth in defensive rating, according to BasketballReference.com.

Yet, chemistry and a strong cohesion — the same one that saw them go on a competitive and surprising playoff run last season — seems to be clicking as the season winds down.

Rudy Gay has returned and leads them in scoring with 18.4 points per game. Marc Gasol holds it down in the interior with 9.4 rebounds a game, and Mike Conley is quietly going about his solid point guard duties with 6.8 assists per night.

Add in the development of Marreese Speights, and the implementation of Zach Randolph and Gilbert Arenas into the second unit — Randolph is still on the comeback from a knee injury while Arenas is entering only his 10th game with the Grizzlies — and there’s finally depth on the roster.

Phoenix, on the other hand, will be tested with physicality, hustle and a solid defense from coach Lionel Hollins’ team.

Will it be enough to take on one of the hottest and more talented teams in the Western Conference?

Three keys for Phoenix

Just get a hand up. Outside of Arenas’ small sample of 10-for-24 shooting from three-point land, Memphis doesn’t really have any outstanding long-range gunners. Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo can hit a three-pointer from time-to-time, but both sit just under 37 percent. If the Suns have a hand in the Memphis players’ faces, that should be good enough to keep them out of the lane and not a huge threat to pour in the points.

Somehow get the starters going. We’ve all witnessed how surprisingly stingy Phoenix’s bench unit has been of late, and their defense has led to huge bursts of scoring. Sebastian Telfair has been a catalyst of the offense, and Michael Redd is averaging 17.2 points a game in his last five.

“These last four or five games, I mean, they’ve carried us,” forward Jared Dudley said of the second unit. “They’ve carried the starters, they’ve done well.”

The starting unit hasn’t looked so sharp, as players like Marcin Gortat, Channing Frye and Jared Dudley have struggled with their consistency. The Suns can’t afford that to continue if they hope to knock off the Grizzlies tonight.

Start with swagger and keep it. Whether it be banging with Speights and Gasol in the paint, or keeping Rudy Gay out of the lane, Phoenix can’t allow the Grizzlies to beat them by sheer physicality. It comes in rebounding, hustles plays — everything really. This is one of those opponents where, if Phoenix comes out flat, they’ll end up getting blown out simply because Memphis won’t let up.

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