Preview: Phoenix Suns (6-7) at Philadelphia 76ers (7-6)

Philadelphia 76ers 104, Phoenix Suns 101

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PHOENIX — It’s a good thing the Phoenix Suns had two home games to get acclimated to Alvin Gentry’s new rotation, because as the team begins its longest road trip of the season Sunday in Philadelphia, they are bound to be tested right away.

It was really a tale of two games against the Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Hornets. Wednesday, the Suns built a huge lead, had every player finish with a positive plus/minus and left US Airways Center with a good old-fashioned rout of Terry Stotts’ squad.

Friday night against New Orleans, Phoenix pulled its usual song and dance: dig a hole, battle back and rely on key bench contributions late to pull out a comeback victory.

As Luis Scola mentioned afterward, it’s nice any time you win because it’s not an easy thing to do in the NBA, but as a whole the team continues to commit the same mistakes over and over and over again.

Whether it be non-existent perimeter defense or a five- to eight-minute bout of poor shooting or an offense that suddenly becomes stagnant spacing-wise, the Suns’ problems will have to be fixed quickly if they have any shot of coming out of their six-game trip with a winning record.

“We have to do the little things better, especially on the road,” Goran Dragic said after Friday’s win. “Look, it’s nice to win the way we did [against the Hornets], but that’s harder to do when the crowd is rooting against you.”

Sunday’s opponent, the Philadelphia 76ers, aren’t the most crowd-friendly team in the NBA. If there’s one thing that’s always remained true about a Doug Collins-coached team, it’s that defense always comes before offense as the top priority. So far in 2012-13, there has been no exception to that rule.

Philadelphia comes into its matchup with the Suns with a record above .500, not because the Sixers run teams out of the gym but because they don’t allow teams to score on them. Collins’ squad ranks fifth-best in the league in defensive efficiency (93.2 points allowed per 100 possessions), fifth-best in opponent field goal percentage (43.4) and ninth-best in defensive rebounding (31.5 per game).

If there is a positive for the Suns, it’s that the Sixers are coming off a home overtime loss last night against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Kevin Durant and Co. found a way to score 116 on Philadelphia, but the Thunder are a much more talented offensive team than the Suns, so that may be a moot point.

Offensively, Philadelphia has been rather inept so far this season, ranking fourth-worst in offensive efficiency (97.2 points per 100 possessions), sixth-worst in effective field goal percentage (46.1) and third-worst in true shooting percentage (49.8).

With that said, the Sixers do have balance offensively thanks in large part to their athleticism, which includes offseason acquisition Jason Richardson. The former Sun is averaging 13.4 ppg and is one of five Philly players to be scoring in double digits this season.

In addition to Richardson, Philadelphia poses matchup problems with its plethora of athletes: Thaddeus Young (13.8 ppg and 8.2 rpg), Evan Turner (12.7 ppg and 7.2 rpg) and Dorell Wright (9.0 ppg and 4.9 rpg). When J-Rich replaces Wright in a lineup with Jrue Holiday-Turner-Young-Lavoy Allen, Philly goes from minus 3.7 points per 100 to plus 8.0.

The Suns have struggled against more athletic teams this season, but Dragic believes it’s much simpler than that.

“It’s important to start the trip against [the Sixers] like we finished our games here at home,” he said. “When we play like we do sometimes from behind, we are a pretty good team. On the road, we need to play like that from the start. You can’t begin slow and expect to win.”

Three Keys for Phoenix

Force Philadelphia to go big. The Sixers have been effective this season when Collins has assembled a lineup made up of a PG, three SFs and a C. The onus is on the one-two center punch of Marcin Gortat and Jermaine O’Neal — a combination Gentry said has contributed the type of production at the position not seen since the Amar’e Stoudemire days — to force Collins to keep multiple bigs (whether it’s Kwame Brown, Spencer Hawes or Lavoy Allen) in the game at the same time.

Gortat followed up his 22-point effort against the Blazers with a dud of a performance Friday night. If he misses shots early, the Suns need to still keep him engaged offensively. However, it’s a two-way street with the Polish Hammer. He also has to continue looking for new ways to stay effective. O’Neal, on the other hand, has four straight games of double-digit scoring, primarily because he isn’t afraid to go into the teeth of the defense and either score points in the paint or go to foul line.

Luis Scola should also be mentioned. His fourth quarter contribution was vital against New Orleans, but he still looks unsure of himself at times with the second unit. Although it’s an adjustment, against an athletic squad like Philadelphia, he will need to find a way to stay active if he wants to stay on the floor at Wells Fargo Center.

Beasley needs to show up. Of the seven starters the Suns have put on the court this season, Michael Beasley has by far the worst plus/minus rating (minus 13.9 points per 100 possessions). The fifth-year pro has become far too enamored with his jump shot, but Beasley is athletic and gifted enough to create better offensive looks for himself. Multiple times in the first half of Friday’s game, Gentry drew up sets specifically to get Beasley open. He missed on all three occasions and checked out mentally after that. If he pulls the same disappearing act Sunday, don’t be surprised if he only plays 15-20 minutes again. Philadelphia has too many athletic forwards for Gentry to keep a two-way liability on the floor with P.J. Tucker waiting in the wings.

Ending the Holiday weekend. Jrue Holiday — yes, it took me this long to mention him in any depth — is Philly’s biggest offensive threat (17.5 ppg and 8.9 apg) and will test Dragic as long as he is on the floor. The Slovenian struggled to contain Greivis Vasquez Friday, but Vasquez isn’t nearly the speedster and playmaker Holiday is. What was encouraging about Dragic’s performance was not how he started but how he finished. Unlike Beasley, Dragic picked up his pace and forced the issue more in the second half despite his early subpar play against the Hornets. A better start would be nice for the Suns’ starting point guard Sunday, as his offensive production will be essential in countering Holiday.

 

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