While “controlling their own destiny” can most definitely be said for the Phoenix Suns, who could win their final two regular season games to make the playoffs, I cringe at using the phrase.
You know, because when the Suns (33-31) face the Jazz (34-30) in Salt Lake City at 7:30 MST tonight, Utah is in the same cockpit. Heck, you could even call the Phoenix the co-pilot in this one.
In the end, it’s who exerts control of the game who will find themselves in sound position to face the No. 1 seed San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs.
Here’s what the Suns are facing in EnergySolutions Arena, one of the more rowdy crowds in the NBA and the home to a Jazz team that’s 23-8 while playing there.
Points per game: 99.7 (fourth in the NBA)
Rebounding: 43.9 (fifth in the NBA)
Opponent points per game: 99.3 (24th in the NBA)
Season series: Phoenix holds a 2-0 record with wins of 120-111 and 107-105
On March 14, the Suns survived 64 Utah paint points but needed Marcin Gortat (25), Channing Frye (26, a season high) and Jared Dudley (21) to score in the 20s to top the Jazz at home. In Utah on April 4, Phoenix led a balanced attack of seven double-digit scorers and needed 19 bench points from Michael Redd to dispatch the Jazz, who were without point guard Devin Harris.
While Gentry and crew won’t take their past history too far — the Suns have won the last seven games in the series — Dudley acknowledged it helps with confidence.
“We’ve won there last year, won there this year,” he said. “For a confidence feeling, we definitely know we’re capable.”
What’s the beef?
The Jazz offense begins and ends with its men up front.
Center Al Jefferson was named the Western Conference Player of the Week on Monday after he averaged 20 points and 15.3 rebounds per game in the prior seven days. Jefferson’s wingman, Paul Millsap, will start at the power forward slot, but he’s also been sliding to the three spot to play alongside youngster Derrick Favors and the bench unit.
While Gortat and Frye have matched the Jazz’s interior players’ offensive production in two games this season, the potential absence of Frye to a subluxed right shoulder combined with Favors’ bench presence gives Utah a sharper advantage in tonight’s game.
If Frye can’t go, the Jazz will have more reason to keep two bigs in the paint on the defensive end. Even so, they have been keying on fixing their pick-and-roll defense as to avoid being burned by stretch fours like Frye.
“Yeah, we’re changing up a little on how we want to guard things,” Gordon Hayward told the Salt Lake Tribune. “We’ve done it more towards who we’re playing instead of ‘This is what we always do.’ I think it’s helped out a little bit, especially when you go up against 4s who can stretch the floor. Teams like that are really difficult to guard, because you’ve got four guys who can basically shoot 3s and a guy rolling down the middle.”
Don’t forget the guards
While it’s the Utah frontline that might get the headlines, make no mistake about how good Devin Harris has been. The often-banged-up point guard gave the Suns a break by missing the two squads’ last meeting, but he’s averaged 19 points and six assists per game in the nine games since.
“Everyone’s got to remember that when he was with Dallas, he was a pretty doggone good player,” Gentry said Monday. “People even talked about him being an All-Star in that situation. I think it’s a matter of being healthy.”
Based on Harris’ comments to the Salt Lake Tribune about how to stop Nash — you can’t — his strategy is to be aggressive and make Nash work on the defensive end. Josh Howard also told the Tribune this interesting tidbit about defending a Nash-led offense.
“The most success I ever had as far as stopping them was letting two guys in the pick-and-roll deal with it and not letting other guys beat you,” Howard said. “Nash is a great player. But you don’t want him to have 28 points and 20 assists. If we can cut down one of the things, I think our chances of winning are a whole lot better.”
Harris has a solid backup in Jamaal Tinsley, and in the starting lineup runs alongside Gordon Hayward, the second-year pro who Gentry said might be the key player for the Jazz.
Who’s in, who’s out?
Backup point guard Earl Watson and forward C.J. Miles won’t play due to injury, while former Sun Raja Bell and wing Josh Howard went through a full practice on Monday and could return to the Utah lineup against Phoenix, according to the Deseret News. Both are rehabbing from knee problems.