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Preview: Atlanta Hawks (33-23) at Phoenix Suns (20-39)

Time: 7 p.m. MST






Against the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday, the Phoenix Suns pulled off one of the NBA’s most surprising upsets of the season by overloading an aged Tim Duncan in the post with Marcin Gortat and Jermaine O’Neal. Maybe winning won’t come regularly considering the talent deficit the Suns are dealing with, but they’ll need more of that mojo if building a grungy, gritty culture is going to become a consistent thing this season.

On Friday, the Suns trek back to U.S. Airways to host an Atlanta Hawks team that has put distractions of midseason struggles, Lou Williams’ season-ending injury and all the Josh Smith trade rumors in the rear-view mirror.

Atlanta is in the middle of a six-game road trip, and for the first time since they were the surprise of the Eastern Conference earlier this year at 20-10, the Hawks stand 10 games over .500. The Hawks got the best of a Utah Jazz team with more than enough depth and talent up front on Wednesday, as center Al Horford scored a career-high 34 points to go with 15 rebounds and five blocks. Horford has averaged 22.2 points on 64.9 percent shooting over the last 10 games.

He’s getting help from former supposed Suns trade target Josh Smith, who didn’t do too shabby either by dropping 24 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. He also added seven assists.

How the Suns handle Atlanta’s frontcourt will be perhaps the thing to watch.

Of all players to match up against Luis Scola, Smith presents the ultimate problem with athleticism, length and a passing ability — though I could also see Scola playing off Smith and baiting him into jumpers.

With Horford, the Suns will have the tandem of Gortat and O’Neal carrying a heavy defensive load. Although they’ve showed the ability to beat down a savvy yet aging front court in San Antonio, the Hawks present a different feel. Meanwhile, the rest of the starters for Atlanta — Kyle Korver, Jeff Teague and Devin Harris — can also fill up the box score, in points more than anything.

The Hawks’ bench of the rugged big man with a less rugged name, Zaza Pachulia, and the grill-bearing Ivan Johnson will present a challenge for Markieff Morris and Lindsey Hunter’s fill-in-the-blank rotation as well.

But that Suns bench might have a sharp advantage. Especially because of the loss of Lou Williams, the Hawks don’t have a single proven scorer coming off the pine. Joining Pachulia and Johnson are defensive special Deshawn Stevenson and rookie shooting guard John Jenkins.

O’Neal’s revitalization could give Phoenix a boost as the starters attempt to stay even with a talented starting five. The growing curiosity of why the Suns didn’t give wing Wes Johnson more of a look earlier in the season could also build as Johnson uses the confidence of his overtime-inducing shot in Wednesday’s game against San Antonio to continue to impress. And that synergy of the Morris twins looked mighty good, as Marcus hit a three-pointer against the Spurs that ended up setting the stage for Johnson’s heroics — O’Neal of course deserves credit here as well.

Atlanta coach Larry Drew has felt a difference with his Hawks of late, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“What I’m seeing now, I’m seeing the guys itching to get back on the court,” Drew said. “They can’t wait for the next game because this certainly feels good – winning on the road and with some of these wins how we’ve done it. I sense from our guys a level of confidence.”

While the San Antonio win was a chance to ruin Phoenix’s lottery positioning, it was a sign that the Suns are re-learning Hunter’s lessons about how to, at the very least, put up a solid fight. The edgy Hawks will probably not lack any such thing. And the lesson plan continues for Hunter, who is also scrapping for his own future in the NBA.

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