Preview: Phoenix Suns (30-28) at Houston Rockets (32-26)

Phoenix Suns 112, Houston Rockets 105

Suns

Rockets

The Phoenix Suns’ loss in Denver last Friday severely crippled their playoff hopes.

A loss tonight in Houston would serve as their knockout punch for all intents and purposes with the Suns trailing the Rockets and Nuggets by two games for a playoff spot entering play tonight.

If the Suns drop tonight’s ESPN-televised 5 p.m. MST showdown in Houston they would fall three games behind the Rockets, 2 ½ behind Denver (pending its game at the Lakers) and three back of the Mavericks (pending their tilt in Portland).

Even worse, all three of those teams would own tiebreakers over the Suns, so with seven games remaining the Suns would need to be nearly perfect and one of those teams would have to collapse for Phoenix to have a chance.

However, if the Suns beat the Rockets then suddenly they would be just one game out of a playoff spot. Even better they would tie the season series with Houston and would actually clinch the next tiebreaker (head-to-head conference record) because with the Rockets owning just a half game better conference record at this point, the only way Phoenix could tie their record is by earning a one game better conference record.

So to summarize, here’s what at stake: If the Suns lose, they are three back of a playoff spot (pending Denver’s result) and will not own a tiebreaker against any of the West’s current bottom three playoff teams. If they win, they are one game back of the Rockets and will own the tiebreaker.

As Survivor’s Jeff Probst would say, I think that’s worth playing for.

“It’s the game for everything,” Suns center Marcin Gortat told Paul Coro. “We have to win this game.”

The Suns’ Hollinger Playoff Odds sit at 26.8 percent today, and because of that nobody in today’s ESPN 5-on-5 (which I took part in) is predicting the Suns to crash the playoff party.

With a loss today I expect those odds to become pretty miniscule but with a win I would not be surprised to see the Suns stay on the playoff bubble for the remainder of the season.

While the Suns play a brutal finishing stretch largely featuring home games against the West’s elite teams, the Rockets still must make trips to Denver, Dallas and Miami although they also play three of their last four against the Hornets (twice) and the Warriors.

Houston enters this one on a sour note having dropped a home decision to the Jazz on Wednesday night, but before that the Rockets swept a four-game trip against Chicago, the Lakers, Sacramento and Portland to cement their playoff status.

Former Sun Goran Dragic has been superb this season as a starter in place of Kyle Lowry – averaging 18.2 points, 8.7 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game in 20 games with the starting group. Now Lowry is back after missing 15 contests with a bacterial infection, but Dragic has still started and played heavy minutes these past three games.

The Suns have their own lineup issues to sort out with Grant Hill expected to make his return two weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. Coro reported the former Blue Devil will probably play 20-25 minutes tonight.

I went over the issue at length in the Memphis gamer, but now Gentry must send either Hill, Shannon Brown or Jared Dudley to the pine.

To summarize, Hill has often struggled to get loose off the bench and the starting unit has not been as good without him, so I expect him to start.

Brown has given the starting group some nice scoring punch, but the bench is playing superb so you hate to potentially mess that up by altering that unit. To me the least obtrusive solution to maximize what’s been working is to start Brown and have Dudley replace Childress in the bench lineup, must as I hate to do that to J-Chill since he has been playing well. Perhaps that could shake JD out of his recent slump in which he’s averaging 3.7 points on 5-for-20 shooting his past three games.

Gentry does not have much time to discover the best way to employ his now healthy team. After all, if the Suns lose this one, it will be time to start breaking down potential lottery picks.

UPDATE: Hill to come off the bench tonight

I still expect him to eventually start, but Coro reported that Hill will make his return off the pine tonight. He last came off the bench late in 2008 under Terry Porter’s regime.

I would not be surprised if he comes off the bench tomorrow as well to match up with Manu Ginobili.

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