Preview: Sacramento Kings (3-7) at Phoenix Suns (5-5)

Time: 7 p.m. MST






So much for the fast start.

After racing out to an impressive 5-2 record, the Phoenix Suns have fallen back to earth a little bit, following three straight losses by a combined six points.

The latest defeat, a 107-104 heart breaker on the road against the Sacramento Kings, came despite the fact that Phoenix held a lead for the first 11 minutes and 30 seconds of the fourth quarter.

Luckily for Jeff Hornacek and Co, they’ll have another crack at the Kings, as the two teams face off Wednesday at U.S. Airways Center in the back end of their home-and-home series.

For the Suns, they’ll look to avoid going below .500 for the first time this season. And for the Kings, they’ll look to win back-to-back games for the first time all season.

How strong is Phoenix’s short-term memory?

While the NBA season is more of a marathon than a sprint, losing hurts regardless of whether its the ninth game or 79th game of the season. Losing three straight in the final moments? Well, that’s even harder to swallow.

With that said, the Suns have an opportunity to erase all of their recent heartache, and thanks to the thoughtful schedule makers, it comes against the team’s most recent pain inflicter.

But for the Suns to prove that their short-term memory is an asset not a deficit, they must overcome one of their biggest weaknesses so far in 2013: winning the fourth quarter.

Outside of a 100-98 overtime loss to the Brooklyn Nets, Phoenix has been outscored in the fourth quarter in every game its lost. Tuesday night was no exception, as the Kings closed out their third victory of the year with a 10-0 run.

Winning in the fourth quarter is of course about making shots (more on that below), but it’s also about taking care of the ball as the pressure mounts. In their three-point loss Tuesday night, the Suns, without guard Eric Bledsoe (bruised shin), turned it over six times in the fourth quarter. It’s hard to be successful giving up that many possessions in the final 12 minutes of game.

Who will close?

Part of finding ways to win late in games is having a closer. Ten games in, it’s not so clear the Suns have filled that role just yet.

Here’s an offensive breakdown of the final 24 seconds in the fourth quarter/overtime during their three-game losing streak: Eric Bledsoe missed layup, P.J. Tucker missed put back, Markieff Morris missed put back, Goran Dragic missed two-point shot, Channing Frye missed three-pointer, Goran Dragic turnover, Goran Dragic missed jumper, Marcus Morris missed three-pointer and Gerald Green missed three-pointer.

That comes out to nine different scoring chances with six different players failing to convert.

On some teams, the closer is simply the guy with the hot hand. On other teams, it’s a designated player who commands the ball regardless of his prior production.

For the Suns, well, it’s still very much a work in progress. That’s not to say the team hasn’t hit big shots in late-game situations — look no further than Bledsoe’s game-winner for proof of that. However, a common theme in the team’s recent string of close losses has been the inability to record a key bucket in the waning moments.

Maybe that all changes Wednesday night, especially if Bledsoe is able to return to the lineup.

Can ‘Boogie’ Cousins be corralled?

Including a lopsided preseason win earlier this year, Kings have won four straight games against the Suns dating back to 2012-13, and a big reason why has been the play of DeMarcus Cousins. The former fifth overall pick has torched Phoenix with three straight double-doubles, including Tuesday night’s performance of 27 points and 12 rebounds.

Unfortunately for Phoenix, the task of ending Cousins’ recent string of success will not be an easy one. If anything, centers like Cousins, Brook Lopez and Robin Lopez have been able to use their size and strength to overpower the likes of Miles Plumlee and Channing Frye. The duo held their own in Sacramento offensively, combining for 27 points and 13 rebounds. But it’s becoming apparent that the Suns’ lack of depth down low could come back to bite them as the season progresses.

While the return of Alex Len (0-of-1 in five minutes of action) could certainly help that depth, Hornacek might be wise to put Slava Kravstov in for a few minutes as well on Wednesday night. If nothing else, he could eat up a few minutes and present a different matchup for Cousins.



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