Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers (2-3) at Phoenix Suns (2-3)

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Phoenix Suns 107, Cleveland Cavaliers 105

Cavaliers

Suns

After a disappointing three-game road trip, one thing is clear for the Phoenix Suns: their defense has to improve. With all the words written and comments posted this offseason about redesigning the offense and integrating new faces into the team, the biggest challenge the Suns are facing five games into the season is their inability to get stops.

Phoenix allowed an average of 116.3 ppg to its last three opponents, including 110 points to the Bobcats. That’s right, the Bobcats. Even though the Suns came away with the win, Wednesday night’s game was a reality check shedding light on how bad the team’s defense has been. The good news for Phoenix is that the NBA season is a marathon rather than a sprint, and the Suns will have 77 more chances to improve. That effort begins tonight as they host the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Cavs are a lot like the Suns. Both teams are searching for a winning identity after the departure of a signature star. Both teams have yet to truly find it. Sure, LeBron has been gone for two seasons and Steve Nash only for five games, but that just means Cleveland is a little further along in the process than Phoenix. The Cavs have chosen to rebuild around a number of high draft picks, including star point guard Kyrie Irving. The Suns have built around free agent veterans. Tonight’s game will serve as an interesting comparison between the two styles of rebuilding.

On paper, these two teams are very evenly matched. Cleveland is scoring 98.0 points per 100 possessions and allowing 105.0. Phoenix is scoring 99.0 pts/100 and giving up 106.0. Tonight’s game figures to be a high-scoring affair considering both teams’ porous defenses and the fact that Phoenix and Cleveland are first and third, respectively, in pace. Although the Suns may not be able to keep the score down in this one, that doesn’t mean they can’t put in a strong defensive effort.

The marquee matchup in the game is at the point guard spot. Kyrie Irving was dubbed by many analysts as the guy most likely to make “The Jump” this season. The second-year player from Duke looks to be well on his way as he’s averaging 24.6 ppg, which is good for fourth in the league. One of the major additions to Kyrie’s scoring arsenal has been a much improved 3-point shot. Last year, he attempted 3.6 per game and connected on just under 40 percent. This year, he’s taking 5.0 per game and hitting 44 percent.

Saddled with the unenviable task of slowing Irving down will be Goran Dragic. Dragic is making his own “jump” this season, though his is not as striking as Irving’s. Goran is currently averaging 8.6 assists per game, which puts him sixth in the NBA. He is also averaging 14.6 points per game, which is a career high in terms of an entire season, but well below the 18 ppg he averaged with Houston at the end of last year in 28 games as a starter. If he is to raise that scoring average, he’ll need to shoot a better percentage as he’s connected on only 41.5 percent of his shots thus far.

Defensively, Dragic will have his hands full. Guarding any player who attempts five shots beyond the arc and five shots at the rim every game is never easy. Dragic will have to stay close enough to contest Irving’s jumper while giving himself enough space to prevent penetration. He has the speed and quickness to stay in front of Irving. The question is whether or not he’ll have the discipline. Goran loves to go for steal, but that often leads to foul trouble, like it did Wednesday night in Charlotte.

The biggest defensive key for Goran tonight is staying on the floor and out of foul trouble. The more minutes he plays, the harder Irving will have to work at both ends, and the better chance the Suns will have for a win. Also worth noting, Irving is recovering from food poisoning he contracted at the team’s hotel in San Fransico a few days ago. He may be a step slow tonight.

The other big matchup to watch for is Anderson Varejao against the Suns’ frontcourt. Varejao is a one-man rebounding machine. He’s a floppy-haired force of nature on the boards. He is currently second in the league, behind Zach Randolph, with 15.0 rpg. The Suns’ trio of Gortat, Scola, and Beasley are no slouches themselves in the rebounding department, but they will have to contend with Varejao’s quickness and tenacity, especially on the offensive glass. The Suns have always been a poor defensive rebounding team, and a player like Varejao can exploit that weakness for easy boards and cheap baskets. In a game that is sure to be very fast-paced, the Suns can ill-afford to give Cleveland extra possessions because they didn’t get a body on Varejao. Either Scola or Gortat need to know where he is at all times.

A small boon to the rebounding effort may be the return of Jermaine O’Neal. The Suns’ backup center has missed two games dealing with a death in his family, but he is expected to rejoin the team and suit up tonight.

For the Cavs, rookie Dion Waiters, who impressed in a road win over the Clipper with 28 points, is dealing with an injury and may not be able to go according to this report from the Akron Beacon-Journal.

Finally, Suns reserve Luke Zeller may have been looking forward to seeing his brother — Cavaliers forward Tyler Zeller — tonight, but Tyler is still recovering from a fractured cheekbone and concussion and may not join the team in Phoenix.

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