Time: 4:00 MST
Friday nigh in Charlotte, the Suns finally snapped their streak of losing winnable games at four. Phoenix will have another opportunity for a W tonight as they take on the Orlando Magic, a team who, like the Suns, seems to waffle between contending and rebuilding on a nightly basis. The Magic have lost some close games to good teams this year, including their narrow defeat to the Heat last night. The Magic had impressive an three game winning steak at the beginning of the month that saw them defeat the Pelicans, Nets, and Clippers. But since then, Orlando has dropped six of their last seven games. Like the Suns, the Magic are building for the future around a talented young combo guard (Victor Oladipo) and a young big man (Nikola Vucevic). Orlando is young and hungry, and their roster doesn’t play like the team is tanking. This will be another hard fought road game for Phoenix especially with Eric Bledsoe likely to miss his fourth game in a row. For more analysis, let’s get to our three big questions for this game.
Can the Suns keep the battle of the boards close?
Nikola Vucevic is a rebounding machine. He currently ranks sixth in the NBA in rebounds per game and is Top 20 in rebound rate. Watching Vucevic play, it’s clear his instincts are just as good as Kevin Love’s, but Vucevic has a bigger body making him even more potent on the glass. To say the Suns are struggling with rebounding as a team would be a massive understatement. They rank in the bottom 10 of the league in both offensive and defensive rebound rate and have looked downright impotent at times, especially against the Kings and Boogie Cousins. Vucevic is every bit as hard to box out as Cousins, so the Suns better have a plan or this game could be a lopsided rebounding affair.
Some of what hurt the Suns against the Kings was Coach Hornacek playing a small lineup. He very well may go small once again against the Magic, and in that case, the bulk of the rebounding burden will fall on Miles Plumlee and Channing Frye. Plumlee had a bounce back game against Charlotte, recording double digit rebounds for the first time in four games. He’ll need another double digit performance tonight to keep the Suns from getting killed by second chance points.
Who will step up, once again, in Bledsoe’s absence?
Though the Suns have only come away with one victory since Bledsoe went down, they have had multiple players step up and shoulder the scoring burden in Eric’s absence. Gerald Green, Marcus Morris, Channing Frye, and Goran Dragic have each had a big game or two scoring the basketball. And with Bledsoe still unable to walk pain free, much less run, cut, and jump, the Suns will need some more standout performances in this game and the rest of this road trip. So who will it be tonight? Orlando plays 3-point defense almost as well as the Suns. That would seem to point away from Channing Frye and Gerald Green, though Green’s 0-for-8 performance from three in Charlotte might indicate that he’s in a slump anyway. Archie Goodwin has been showing some serious signs of life lately. Orlando’s bench is not very deep, so it’s possible Goodwin could have a big day against the reserves. And it’s also very possible the bulk of the Suns production might actually come the paint in this game. For more on that, let’s ask our next question.
Can Phoenix find some paint scoring?
For all of Orlando’s rebounding prowess, they don’t protect the rim all that well. And aside from Vucevic, the Magic don’t have a ton of size in the paint. There is a definite opportunity for Plumlee and the Morris twins to do some damage inside. Plumlee has been up and down offensively over the last several games. He hasn’t been afraid to attack some of the premier big men in the league like DeMarcus Cousins and Tim Duncan, but he also hasn’t always been as successful offensively as he would have liked every time out. Plumlee deserves to have a 20-point game on his resume with how hard he has worked this season. If he can keep his motor up and stay out of foul trouble, he’ll have ample opportunity for dunks and easy baskets against Orlando’s shorter front line. The same logic goes for Markieff Morris. When Morris was Player of the Week earlier this season, it was because of his ability to score in the paint. For the first time in his career, he was consistently taking the ball inside and scoring instead of settling for jump shots. His output and his confidence have waned since that streak, but this game is a chance to get back on the right track. Morris needs to get into the paint, find contact, and finish at the rim. That is what will get him going, and it very well could be the key to the Suns rediscovering their early season form.