Preview: Orlando Magic (7-12) at Phoenix Suns (7-14)

Orlando Magic 98, Phoenix Suns 90

Magic

Suns

Looking to avoid their first seven-game losing streak in nine years, the Phoenix Suns catch a break Sunday against the Orlando Magic. Jacque Vaughn’s team visits US. Airways Center to close out a five-game road trip, and with two losses in a row, the Magic appear to be in a heavy-legged backpedal.

“I feel it, but our trainers and coaches have been keeping us ready really well and making sure that we get rest,” forward Glen Davis told the Magic’s website.

The Suns could use any bit of advantage to keep hope alive.

Saturday’s loss to the Clippers, especially toward the end, certainly looked like there wasn’t much of that hope. Jermaine O’Neal’s ejection was followed by Ronny Turiaf slamming it home on Marcin Gortat after Michael Beasley failed to rotate. The sequence summed up the Suns’ current losing streak, but it was the rest of the game that gave reason to believe this team has more issues than failed defense.

When Luis Scola and Goran Dragic were the only Phoenix players passing the halfcourt line on the offensive end in the game’s final possessions, pride might be something coming into question these days.

On Friday, head coach Alvin Gentry said he believed his team was fighting every single night, and the Suns did indeed fight for three quarters. But O’Neal’s ejection became telling as to Phoenix’s youth — when a veteran team would respond to the ejection of their captain one way, the Suns did so in quite another.

Before the Suns benched Beasley, Gentry said any change was to work out the starting lineup that had clearly been the reason for first- and third-quarter woes. Before his first alteration of the starting lineup this year, he said it was to wake up a mismatch of new bench players.

The Suns have yet to find the balance. Beasley’s move to the bench saw Phoenix outscore the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday 57-50 in the first and third quarters but get beaten to a pulp 67-42 in the second and fourth quarters combined.

Helping the Suns’ cause is Orlando’s vulnerability in the first quarters, as the Orlando Sentinel’s Josh Robbins wrote Saturday.

Of course, Phoenix’s affinity to give up game-changing runs could make all of the above points moot. The Suns are second-to-last in the NBA in defensive rating, giving up 109.7 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

If Phoenix does lose its seventh in a row, any out-there, head-in-the-clouds optimist would look at the last time it happened. In the heart of the 2003-04 season, the Suns lost eight in a row shortly after the trade that sent Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway to New York.

You know how the following offseason went for the Suns.

Three keys for the Suns

Three-point defense. It’s hard to say if this will happen or not. Gentry isn’t a big proponent of worrying about three-point defense specifically, but there’s a good bet he should against the Magic, who hit 9-of-11 against Phoenix in the 115-94 win on Nov. 4. While Orlando has struggled to the tune of 5-of-30 shooting from deep in the past two games, the Suns certainly can’t take as a sign that the Magic can’t hit three-pointers.

Push the pace with the second unit. The Magic look different from the first game against the Suns. Jameer Nelson has returned and Moe Harkless is in the starting lineup. Still, the bench unit is young outside of J.J. Redick. It’s also not very deep. Phoenix must get into transition with aggressive defense to win the bench battle. Vaughn played Glen Davis 40 minutes, Arron Afflalo 38 minutes and Nelson 36 in Friday’s 91-82 loss to the Kings. Running the Orlando starters will help Phoenix if it’s a close game in the fourth. If P.J. Tucker is available, that’ll help even more.

Win in the paint. Center Nikola Vucevic scored 18 points against Phoenix earlier in the season, and that total is still tied for his career high. Glen Davis scored 22 against the Suns, and through 19 games this year he has only eclipsed that total three times. Rookie Andrew Nicholson, a 6-foot-9, 240 pounder, is coming off a 14-point game against a big Sacramento frontline. See where I’m going?

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