Time: 4:30 MST
The bipolar Phoenix Suns will be back in action Friday night as they visit the Atlanta Hawks. After a manic three-game win streak two weeks ago, the Suns have fallen into another depression, dropping four of their last five games by an average of of 20 points. The only good news for Phoenix heading into tonight’s game is that the Hawks may be in even worse shape than they are.
Atlanta has lost six of their last eight games including a 92-87 defeat at the US Airways Center on March 1st. The Suns were victorious in that game despite only two points from Marcin Gortat, who is likely miss the rest of the season with an foot injury. The Hawks are dealing with injury concerns of their own. Jeff Teague, Josh Smith, and Zaza Pachulia all missed Atlanta’s win over the Lakers on Wednesday. According to the ESPN Injury Report, both Smith and Teague are probable for tonight’s game, but Pachulia will likely miss his seventh contest in a row with an Achilles injury.
The Hawks victory over the Lakers is a testament to Atlanta’s incredible depth as well as GM Danny Ferry’s case for executive of the year. To be assured of a playoff spot in a de facto rebuilding year is nothing short of a front office miracle.
Despite their poor form as of late, however, Atlanta is currently in a three way tie with Boston and Chicago for the fifth seed in the East. They’re also only 2.5 games back of the fourth seed and the right to host a first-round series. Atlanta is a much tougher opponent at home than they are on the road, so you can bet the Hawks will do everything they can to get to that fourth spot. That may or may not include intentionally injuring Kobe Bryant’s ankle, but that’s another discussion for another day.
They key to victory in this game for Phoenix is defense. The Suns must do something to disrupt Atlanta’s passing. The Hawks are second only to San Antonio in assist rate. Despite Josh Smith’s well documented gunnery, Atlanta shares the ball incredibly well. This unselfishness leads to a lot of easy baskets inside and open looks from downtown. The Hawks are eighth in True Shooting % according to John Hollinger. They’re also Top 5 in both 3-pt % and attempts. 3-point defense has been a huge weakness for the Suns this year, so this is definitely an area the Hawks will look to exploit. The Hawks were a semi-respectable 8-of-23 from downtown despite Jeff Teague and Josh Smith going 0-for-7 combined from beyond the arc. Even though both players are returning from injury, the Suns can’t count on poor shooting nights to get them through.
The way to defend Hawks may be to send them to the line. The Hawks attempt the third fewest FT’s per game and shoot the fourth worst % from the charity stripe in the NBA. The Suns would do well to run their shooters off the arc and not shy away from contact inside, especially against poor free throw shooters like Horford, Smith, and Ivan Johnson who should see more time with Pachulia out.
Offensively, Phoenix needs consistency. There was a stretch after the trade deadline where the Morris twins looked like an absolute revelation playing together. But that shine has faded especially from Markieff who has averaged just five points in the last four Suns’ losses. Luis Scola has been equally inconsistent. Playing in Houston against his former team, Scola scored only four points and in just 14 minutes of play. I would not be surprised to see Jermaine O’Neal get more time at the center spot tonight with Scola playing the four alongside Marcus Morris. While that lineup breaks up the power of the Wonder Twins, it may also get Phoenix a much needed victory. O’Neal prolonged absence coincided with Marcin Gortat’s injury, so the Suns haven’t much opportunity to get Scola and O’Neal on the floor together since the Polish Hammer went down.
The final key to tonight’s game is Wes Johnson. While the move to the starting lineup has definitely bolstered his stat line, the Suns haven’t seen Johnson’s production translate into wins over the last two weeks. In fact he had just five points in Phoenix’s unlikely victory over Houston last week, while Jared Dudley, the man Wes supplanted in the starting lineup, had 22 points. But despite the losses continuing to pile up, it appears Coach Lindsey Hunter will stick with Johnson as a starter for the remainder of the year. He told the Arizona Republic’s Paul Coro, “He’s growing right before our eyes. It’s really fun to see. It’s fun to coach a person who accepts it and embraces it.”
Be that as it may, if Johnson can’t help Phoenix rack up a few more W’s, he may well secure a Top 5 pick for the Suns which they would crazy not to spend on a shooting guards like Victor Oladipo.