Time: 6 p.m. MST
The Phoenix Suns head into their clash of Western Conference cellar dwellers Wednesday in the Big Easy fresh off their most impressive road victory of the season.
While likely by accident, interim head coach Lindsey Hunter may have found his blueprint for the remaining 33 games of the 2012-13 season. In Phoenix’s 96-90 win over the Memphis Grizzlies, Hunter employed a heavy dose of Kendall Marshall and Goran Dragic down the stretch in the backcourt, and also utilized the length and physicality of a three-man post rotation (Luis Scola, Marcin Gortat and Jermaine O’Neal).
Wednesday night’s opponent, the New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans, are half the team the Grizzlies were both in terms of the win column and in personnel. Although Monty Williams has a terrific young nucleus in Anthony Davis (No. 1 overall pick in 2012 NBA Draft), Austin Rivers (No. 10 overall pick in 2012 NBA Draft), Eric Gordon (24 years old) and Ryan Anderson (24 years old), the pieces have not quite come together just yet.
Injuries have limited Gordon (knee and back) and Davis (ankle) this season, as the duo have combined to play just 50 games out of a possible 96. As for Rivers, health has not been an issue for the former Duke star, however adjusting to the speed of the game has. In 47 appearances, Rivers (6.1 points and 2.2 assists per game) has shot 34.1 percent from the field, 30.6 percent three-point range and a staggering 55.3 percent from the charity stripe.
If there has been a bright spot beneath the team’s apparent growing pains it’s been the play of Anderson, a sign-and-trade acquisition back in July. Anderson (39.6 percent three-point shooter on the year) showed off his sharp shooting back in November at US Airways Center, as he posted a career-high 32 points on 8-of-13 from downtown in a 111-108 overtime loss to the Suns. While fans in the Valley got a glimpse of it for a night, Anderson’s touch from the perimeter has been on display throughout 2012-13. The fourth-year pro has scored 20 points or more on 15 different occasions and has recorded double-digit scoring in 10 of his last 12 contests.
In addition to Anderson, Greivis Vasquez has done his best to solidify the starting point guard position moving forward. Now in his third year out of Maryland, Vasquez has honed in on his dribble-drive penetration moves and not only leads the team in assists (9.3 per game) but ranks third in the league behind Rajon Rondo and former Hornets guard Chris Paul. The Venezuela native has also made strides with his shot this season, averaging more than 13.8 points per game on 13.0 attempts (42.6 percent).
Although Anderson and Vasquez have given fans in New Orleans a taste of what might be to come, the team as a whole has been dreadful to watch. Going into Wednesday night’s game against Phoenix, Monty Williams’ squad is the second-worst team in the league in pace (91.1 possessions per game), third-worst in defensive efficiency (allowing 106.9 points per 100 possessions) and tied for fourth-worst in turnover ratio (14.1 percent).
Keys to a Phoenix victory…
Keep Anderson off the three-point line. Although it’s safe to say Ryan Anderson probably won’t have a shooting night like he did on November 23 against the Suns, the Hornets leading scorer averages almost eight shots per game from three-point range. Hot or cold, he’s going to take them. In the teams’ first matchup, Alvin Gentry employed Markieff Morris on Anderson, but the Suns’ athletic power forward was no match. Wednesday night, Luis Scola will likely get the assignment, a far cry from his clash with Zach Randolph. While Scola might not be a terrific on-ball defender, it will be important for him to force Anderson off the three-point line and into the teeth of Phoenix’s defense.
Believe in the backcourt. Goran Dragic’s foul trouble against the Grizzlies may have created the greatest accident the Suns have had this season, but it’s important for Lindsey Hunter to learn if the duo of Dragic and Marshall can work long-term. Is it a possible recipe for success or is it simply a one-night fluke? To be honest, no one really knows. Against a team with equal talent, Wednesday night seems like the perfect opportunity to try the pairing in key stretches once again.
Win the battle of the 5. In his first matchup with former teammate Robin Lopez, Marcin Gortat struggled mightily (six points on 2-of-7 shooting) and gave way to Jermaine O’Neal in the fourth quarter as the Suns mounted a 19-point comeback. Gortat, however, is coming off one of his more efficient scoring games of the season (20 points on 8-of-10 shooting in Tuesday’s win), so it will be interesting which Polish Hammer we see. O’Neal was also impressive coming off a seven-game absence (irregular heartbeat) against Memphis. The 17-year veteran gave the bench a much-needed boost with 14 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals. The only unknown in the matchup of Wednesday’s bigs is rookie Anthony Davis (13.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game). While the former Kentucky standout primary plays the four, often times Williams has the reigning National Player of the Year play the five when Lopez goes to the bench. Davis was in street clothes back on November 23, but there’s no denying the impact he can have on a game (scored 10 points or more in 11 of his last 12 contests).