After a brutal stretch of road games, the Phoenix Suns have returned home with a chance to move into eighth in the Western Conference standings. With a win tonight over the Portland Trail Blazers and a Houston loss to Denver, the Suns and Rockets would have identical 32-29 records. The Suns would take the higher seed because of their better record in the Western Conference. Before Phoenix can make that jump in the standings, however, they must take care of business against the Blazers.
On paper, this game should be an easy win for the Suns. Since the last time these two teams played, Portland has traded away or lost to injury its entire starting frontcourt. LaMarcus Aldridge is set to undergo arthoscopic hip surgery and will miss the rest of the season. Marcus Camby was dealt to the Houston Rockets, and Gerald Wallace was sent to the New Jersey Nets. In addition, Nic Batum has been ruled out of the game with a quad injury CSNNW reports. Ray Felton will be sitting as well. Luke Babbitt and Nolan Smith will start in their place.
This is a totally different team than the Suns faced earlier this year, but that doesn’t make them any less capable of derailing the Suns’ playoff push. Phoenix must continue to do what it has done consistently since the All-Star break: beat bad teams.
The Suns have not lost a game since the All-Star break to a team with a sub-.500 record. Since then, Phoenix has refused to play down to the level of lesser opponents and has come up with 17 wins in 26 games. To get win number 18, the Suns will have to shake off a bad loss at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.
If not for a strong bench effort, the final score of Saturday night’s game might have had a 30-point margin of defeat instead of the misleading 105-91 final score. Steve Nash played less than six minutes, and the starting five were basically run off the court by a San Antonio team still hoping to catch the Oklahoma City Thunder for the top seed in the West. Nash, Grant Hill, and Marcin Gortat should be well rested after playing reduced minutes on Saturday and a day off on Sunday. They’ll need fresh legs and a short memory against a group in Portland playing for contracts and pride.
Jamal Crawford, Ray Felton, Nic Batum, and J.J. Hickson will all be free agents next year. Crawford has a player option he is likely to have opt out of, and Batum will be a restricted free agent who will likely garner attention outside of Portland. Portland’s young guys, who are likely to see a lot of action in the next five games, will also be trying to prove themselves worthy of playing time next season. With many of their best players not playing, the time to shine is now for everyone on the roster. Though Phoenix has been playing better basketball than Portland for nearly two months and the Blazers are on the second night of a back-to-back, the Suns cannot afford to look past this game and this team to their more daunting opponents later in this homestand.
Three Keys to Victory
- Pound the post. After a dreadful performance on both ends of the floor against Tim Duncan and the Spurs, Marcin Gortat has a decidedly easier matchup tonight against Joel Przybilla and J.J. Hickson. Gortat’s two worst games this year were against Minnesota on Match 12 and Orlando on March 21. He responded in the games following those two performances with 25 and 23 points, respectively. I expect him to bounce back with a big night. Channing Frye also needs to work in the post tonight. According to mySynergySports, Frye ranks 15th in the entire NBA in points per post-up possession. Frye has been incredibly efficient scoring in the post, especially against smaller defenders. He simply has not posted up very much at all this year. He might do well over the final six games to post as a means of opening up his outside shot as opposed to posting only when his jumper isn’t falling.
- A double-double for Two Time. After what amounts to a healthy scratch on Saturday, both Nash and the Suns need a big game from the point guard spot tonight. For the team, it would be a big confidence boost to know their leader is locked in and ready for the final six games. For Nash, these could be his final games in a Phoenix uniform, so he needs to make every one count.
- Contain Portland’s backcourt. Though Portland was a frontcourt dominant team for the first half of the season, Wesley Matthews and Jamal Crawford (who sat out last night’s game against Sacramento) carry the scoring load now. Grant Hill, Shannon Brown, Jared Dudley, and Nash will have to work as a unit to contain these guys. Crawford and Matthews have three 30-point games between them in April. The Suns will have to close out strong and cut off driving lanes to keep these guys in check.
The Arizona Republic reported that Nash’s hip feels good and thus the Suns’ All-Star plans on playing tonight. Grant Hill is sitting out to rest his knee but is expected back Wednesday.