Seven losses in a row. Chemistry troubles. A loss to the very same, very good Memphis Grizzlies team last Tuesday.
The Phoenix Suns get another go at Memphis, one of the better Western Conference teams, on Wednesday night at US Airways Center, and little is going in their favor coming into it. Goran Dragic’s potential return after missing Sunday’s loss to the Orlando Magic might be the only shot in the arm for Alvin Gentry’s club, and even then, it’s a monumental stretch to say that could swing things in the Suns’ favor.
Still, a return by Dragic, who practiced on Tuesday, will be interesting to watch after he struggled against the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday and then missed Sunday’s game after reportedly losing six pounds because of illness. The point guard’s 15.1 points, 6.4 assists and two steals per game have been the brightest part of the Suns’ season, and his return during the seven-game losing streak is a ray of hope considering he’s a competitive player, a leader and someone still maturing.
If anything, the Suns could benefit from the return of their best one-on-one scoring threat. But how does the young point guard handle himself when the times are tough?
It’ll be especially interesting to watch Dragic operate against Memphis point guard Mike Conley, who is considered one of the more underrated point guards in the league. Conley’s style and statistics nearly mirror those of the Suns’ maestro.
With the season going the way it is, these are the small battles that will begin catching the eye so long as the team as a whole continues with its consistent inconsistencies.
Both lefties, Conley has been in the league a year longer, but Dragic is a year older. Each averages 14 to 15 points per game and a few ticks more than six assists. They each sit in the top eight of players in the league as far as steals per game. While Conley is the better pure shooter at 44 percent from three-point range, Dragic shoots slightly better from the field thanks to his size and ability to attack the paint.
Dragic got the best of Conley in the teams’ first meeting last week, scoring 19 and dropping seven dimes in 44 minutes. Conley had 11 points on 2-of-9 shooting and only had one assist in two less minutes.
Though the point guards could play to a draw, Memphis has the clear advantage with Zach Randolph. The Suns had no antidote for the veteran forward last week in the 108-98 overtime win for the Grizzlies, when Randolph scored 38 points and grabbed 22 rebounds.
Whether it was Markieff Morris to start, Luis Scola to help at the first substitution, or Marcin Gortat to finish, Randolph had his way with the Suns. Memphis outscored Phoenix in the paint to the tune of 60-38, more than negating the Suns’ 18-9 fastbreak advantage.
Of course, the silver lining is that Phoenix did take the Grizzlies to overtime. Despite Memphis ranking first in the NBA with 91.2 points allowed per game, the Suns’ offense was capable of keeping pace until the overtime period where Phoenix was outscored 14-4.
The Grizzlies have nearly four full days of rest since their last game and should have plenty of motivation to win after they fell, 93-83, to the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday.
Three keys for the Suns
Deny Randolph. At this point, the Suns’ only way to stop Zach Randolph would be with ball denial. Fronting the broad-shouldered forward in the post might be the only answer. Of course, it’s only goes so far. If Randolph does receive the ball, the Suns must force him into out-of-rhythm jumpers by hoping his hubris from the last outing gets the best of him. He’s too good of a passer to send double teams his way, especially considering a double team means Phoenix must rotate, something the team hasn’t been capable of doing well when offenses force it to happen.
Attack Zach. Randolph was such a problem against Phoenix because he’s such a difficult mismatch for any of the Suns. That said, his defensive prowess is one vulnerability, and using Luis Scola early if Markieff Morris can’t handle Randolph’s size might be the answer in making Randolph work. Scola had 16 points and eight rebounds against Memphis last Tuesday, and though he can’t defend Randolph, making Randolph defend him is something to consider. Phoenix can also run some early set plays for Morris to pick and pop; Randolph isn’t the biggest fan of perimeter defense.
Quiet Quincy. The Memphis bench has talent, but it’s a much less explosive unit offensively when Quincy Pondexter isn’t hot. Marreese Speights, Darrell Arthur and Jerryd Bayless aren’t huge threats on a unit that’s more about defense and playing off the Memphis playmakers, but Pondexter has two 16-point games in the last three outings — one against Phoenix. He scored zero points against Atlanta in the Grizzlies’ last game, a loss.