Preview: Phoenix Suns (22-42) at Houston Rockets (34-30)

Time: 5 p.m. MST






PHOENIX — No matter the Phoenix Suns’ recent offense success, there’s no way to hide that models build in Houston and Denver are out of their league. Namely, the firepower isn’t there. And while the Suns have looked relatively capable of running and gunning with those two very different teams in splitting the last two games, there’s little doubt that this team needs an inside presence to compete at its highest level.

The return of Jermaine O’Neal Wednesday as the Suns face the Rockets in Houston will be a key boost to an interior defense that gave up 74 points in the paint to Denver. More importantly against a spread Rockets team, the veteran center will provide a paint presence himself.

Jared Dudley said that the team was missing both Marcin Gortat and O’Neal, whether it had been winning or not.

“I mean, I thought the first game against Cousins, it was evident there,” Dudley said after the loss to the Nuggets on Monday.

After three full games without Gortat, teams might begin to scout how Phoenix’s perimeter-oriented offense — one by default — is clicking. Houston gets its second crack at the Suns after last playing in Phoenix on Saturday, where the Rockets fell 107-105. In reach of Golden State for the sixth spot in the Western Conference and attempting to stay ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers, the Rockets have plenty of reason to play with a little more urgency on defense against Phoenix this time around.

O’Neal could give the Suns an extra boost in the paint, where they won the battle 38-28 in the last outing and survived the Houston onslaught of 19-of-41 shooting from three-point range. Phoenix also survived James Harden’s 38 points and eight assists by forcing him into eight turnovers and then scoring 28 points off 19 total Rocket miscues.

P.J. Tucker, who tied a career-high 10 rebounds against the Rockets and down the stretch played as a power forward, said the Rockets “get so many (three-pointers) up, you just try to make them take tough ones and rebound out of it and be able to put the pressure back on them.

“They do go one-around-four, have so many guys spot up,” he added. “It’s tough.”

Interim head coach Lindsey Hunter’s defense impressed against the Rockets despite the hot shooting on Saturday. If the Suns can continue to rely on backup center Hamed Haddadi, and now O’Neal, to patrol the paint and allow the perimeter defenders to press on their men, then Phoenix expects good things to happen.

After the Denver game, Hunter again noted the room for growth in jostling for perimeter position on both ends. The Nuggets won, in part, because they knew how to outmaneuver the Suns on the outside.

“You have to fight through the resistance of them trying to push you a foot further out from your catches,” Hunter said. “Those are things we want to do. They tried to impose their will on us and we have to get better at responding.”

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