The first five games of the Suns’ six-game road trip have been absolutely brutal. Thus far, they’ve dropped close games to Philadelphia and Toronto, looked overmatched against the Knicks, and suffered one of their worst losses in franchise history to Detroit. Their sole win came against a Cleveland team playing without its best player.
Nothing seems to have gone right for Phoenix since its overtime win against New Orleans on Nov. 23. The Suns are four games under .500 in the midst of what most assumed was a soft opening schedule. And now they are set to face the Grizzlies, who are tied with Miami for the best record in the NBA.
Memphis has more than earned its stellar record. They are best in the league in defensive efficiency, according to John Hollinger. They’re also 11th in offensive efficiency.
The Grizzlies’ strength on the offensive end comes from its outstanding frontcourt trio of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Rudy Gay. These three average more than 51 points per game, making Memphis the league leader in frontcourt scoring. Defensively, Memphis is as strong on the perimeter as they are in the paint, allowing a paltry 0.96 points per possession. For all their size and tenacity inside, the Grizzlies are actually middle-of-the-pack in both rebounds (41.8 rpg) and blocks (5.3 bpg). The Suns will have to exploit both areas if they are to contend in this game.
How the Suns a fare in the paint will likely depend on Marcin Gortat’s performance. Against the Knicks and last year’s DPOY Tyson Chandler, Marcin put up 18 points and 10 boards. It was the first time he had grabbed double-figure rebounds in 10 games. Gortat has been Jekyll and Hyde all season, but especially on this road trip. He managed only six points against both the Cavs and the Pistons. He’s looked lost and over-matched on the offensive end in more games already this season than all of last year. Defensively, he’s been lackadaisical at best and completely disengaged at worst. In the past, Marcin has let physical teams like Memphis take him completely out of the game. Phoenix will have no chance in this contest if Marcin allows that to happen. He must be assertive and tough against Gasol and Randolph.
Another key player for the Suns tonight is Jared Dudley. Dudley has quietly shot 54.5 percent from the field on this road trip after shooting better than 50 percent in only two games previously. He has made some small strides from his disastrous early season form, but he still has a long way to go. Dudley must continue to work hard to get open and take more shots if he is to be respected as a true 3-point threat. If he can be effective tonight, things will open up offensively inside for Gortat, Scola, and Beasley.
The final key for Phoenix is Goran Dragic. Though the Suns have been disappointing, Dragic has been a bright spot. The Dragon currently ranks 23rd in the league with a PER of 21.61. That mark is 3.6 points better than his previous career high. Although the hope coming into the year was that Goran would average 18 points and 8 assists, his numbers are still great given the dysfunction that has surrounded him for the most of the season.
What has been most impressive about Dragic’s game is his ability to penetrate and finish at the tim. Although the onus is always on him to facilitate ball movement on offense, Dragic and the Suns would both be better served if he took more shots and penetrated more often. Mike Conley will be a handful on both ends of the court, but Dragic has more size and enough quickness to get by him. When Phoenix’s offense bogs down, Dragic has to be assertive, demand the ball, and make something happen for his team.
Though this trip has been filled with disappointing results, the Suns have a chance to put a positive stamp on it by hanging with the Grizzlies tonight and stealing a game on their home court. At this point in the year, the Suns have to look at every game as a chance to prove themselves and get their season moving in a positive direction.