Preview: Phoenix Suns (1-2) at Miami Heat (2-1)

Phoenix Suns 124, Miami Heat 99

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The Phoenix Suns have little time to dwell on their worst loss of the season — a 115-94 defeat Sunday night to the Orlando Magic — with a 5:30 p.m. MST date against the reigning MVP champion Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on Monday night.

For all intents and purposes the Suns played pretty good basketball for the first 30 minutes of Sunday night’s contest. Staked to a 68-54 lead midway through the third quarter, they appeared well on their way to a comfortable first road win on the season. But the best laid plans of mice and men can often get shattered when the team’s staple through the first week of the season — defense — fell by the wayside. Put simply, the Suns aren’t going to win many games this season if they allow a team to score 69 second-half points and shoot 80 percent from three-point range.

Much like the Suns, the Magic are currently a team full of complementary parts trying to make due in the absence of a departed star. The same cannot be said for Monday’s opponent, the Miami Heat. The NBA is a star-driven league, and no team personifies that more than the 2011-12 NBA champions. Following their successful quest for a title back in June, Pat Riley and Co. didn’t by any means rest on their laurels.

Defensive drop-off?

Now surrounding LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh is the league’s most prolific three-point shooter, Ray Allen. And though he is nowhere near his prime, the team also added Rashard Lewis for depth coming off the bench. Add in another year of maturity for point guards Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, and talk about going back-to-back is closer to a reality than a far-fetched notion.

The Heat are 2-1 on the season, but Erik Spoelstra’s squad hasn’t quite come together the way most thought a star-laden team would, even this early in the season. While the team is not surprisingly the most efficient offense team in the league through the first week in the season — scoring 114 points per 100 possessions — they are also by far the least efficient defense in the league.

Last season, Miami allowed only 97.1 points per 100 possessions, good for fourth best in the league. In the early stages of the 2012 season, the Heat have allowed a staggering 114 points per 100 possessions. All three teams they’ve faced — the Celtics, Knicks and Nuggets — have scored at least 104 points, and did so rather easily.

Completely offensive

The Suns’ offense, also not surprisingly, has been somewhat of enigma through three games. Sunday’s scoring output of 95 points was the team’s highest on the young season, but as the game got away from them in Orlando, it was not only their defense that betrayed them, but poor perimeter shooting. As Orlando extended the lead to double digits, the Suns simply could not buy a basket. On the season, the Suns have yet to shoot higher than 45 percent in a game — a troubling sign considering they’ve only faced mediocre squads to this point.

Heading into the 2012-13 campaign, it was somewhat assumed and even expected that Jared Dudley would help carry the load on offense. Over his last two games, not only has he missed most of his opportunities, he’s failed to take many, going just 2-for-8 combined against the Pistons and Magic.

And while Marcin Gortat, Luis Scola and Michael Beasley continued to carry the load Sunday night — combining for 60 points and 24 rebounds — if the Suns don’t get productive minutes at the offensive end out of Dudley, Markeiff Morris and Sebastian Telfair, their efficiency rating of 93 points per 100 possessions will likely drop, because as Monday’s matchup indicates the competition only gets tougher.

3 keys for a Phoenix victory

Continue the block party. On paper, the Suns looked like a team that would struggle in the swats department this season. However, their defense has largely been predicated on a high number of blocks through three games. Led by Gortat’s four blocks, the Suns had a whopping 10 on Sunday night. Miami is a lot of things, but tall and physical aren’t among them. Bosh — who owns the Suns with an average of nearly 28 points per game in his last eight appearances against Phoenix — likes to play away from the basket, and although Joel Anthony likes to body up on the boards, he isn’t exactly an offensive threat. If the Suns are going to combat the speed and athleticism of James, Wade, Bosh and Chalmers, it’ll have to come via block shots.

Showing up in the fourth quarter. The Suns had a chance to beat Miami last season at American Airlines Arena, if not for a dreadful final period that saw Phoenix get outscored 19-5 down the stretch. Although this is a different team, obviously, a similar theme has developed in the fourth quarter of games in 2012-13. The Suns have a minus-20 point differential over the final 12 minutes this season. Sunday, it kept them from even making a decent comeback effort. Against the Pistons Friday, it almost cost them the game. And against the Warriors, it did cost them the game. If the Suns have any chance of taking out the defending champions on their home court, all four quarters are going to be important. But, especially the fourth quarter.

Keep the Heat off the three-point line. Riley and the Heat front office have done a tremendous job in recent years of surrounding their Big Three with veteran shooters, whether it be Eddie House, Mike Miller, Shane Battier, James Jones or Ray Allen. The Heat have already hit 25 three-point shots on the season — nine of which have come from Allen — and don’t expect them to stop firing from deep against the Suns, given that Phoenix made J.J. Redick look quite comfortable from downtown Sunday. The Heat can beat you in a number of ways, and based on the matchup the Suns will have enough on their hands just trying to limit fast-break points and transition offense. If Miami gets going from three-point range, Monday’s outcome could look a lot like what transpired in Orlando.

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