Time: 7:00 pm MDT
The last time the Phoenix Suns put together 10 wins in the first month of their season, they found themselves two wins away from appearing in the 2010 NBA Finals.
Saturday night, the Suns will again try to reach that mark — a feat that’s far more impressive than when the 2009-10 squad accomplished it given the talent disparity between the two.
While it’s easy to point to the Suns’ less-than inspiring schedule (beat Jazz (2), Pelicans (2), Blazers (2), Nuggets, Bobcats, Magic) as a reason why Jeff Hornacek’s squad sits at 9-7 going into Saturday night’s game, the fact of the matter is given the amount of offseason turnover (new coach, new GM, eight new players, return of Channing Frye and the departures of Jared Dudley, Luis Scola, Marcin Gortat and Michael Beasley), two games over .500 is downright impressive regardless of who the opposing teams have been.
One of the teams the Suns have feasted on early in 2013-14 is the Utah Jazz. Like Phoenix, Utah clearly has its eyes on the future and appears committed to developing young talent like Trey Burke, Alex Burke, Derrick Favors, Enis Kanter and Jeremy Evans.
The Suns had no problem taking advantage Friday night. They erased an early nine-point hole with three 30-point quarters and went on to win comfortably by a final of 112-101. Markieff Morris (23 points off the bench), Goran Dragic (19 points and nine assists) and Miles Plumlee (15 points and 10 rebounds) led the way, as Hornacek left Salt Lake City a victor on his personal Homecoming Night.
The scheduling gods have determined that two matchups between the Western Conference foes wasn’t enough in November, so they’ve gone ahead and planned a third showdown Saturday night at US Airways Center.
Here’s what to watch for as the Suns look to improve to 3-0 against the Jazz and 10-7 overall:
Will Goran Dragic bully Trey Burke in Round Two?
Suns guard Goran Dragic has been on a tear of late, regardless of whether he’s facing a veteran point guard, a reigning Rookie of the Year or a former Wooden Award winner.
In his last six games, Dragic is averaging 22 points and nine assists per game, largely picking up the slack left in the absence of Eric Bledsoe.
But even with Bledsoe returning Friday night from his six-game hiatus, the Dragon took it to Utah’s rookie point guard, Trey Burke.
While Burke is clearly working himself back into playing shape after missing a month due to a fractured right index finger, at this point in his young career – healthy or otherwise – he doesn’t exactly look the part of a guard who can contain Dragic.
In the Suns’ 112-101 victory, the Slovenian did whatever he wanted against the No. 8 overall pick. He looked bigger, faster and far more confident in his game. There’s no reason to think that won’t carry over 24 hours later, right?
Speaking of Bledsoe, how will he handle the back-to-back?
Call it a lack of conditioning or the subtle altitude adjustment that’s necessary to play in Salt Lake City, but Eric Bledsoe’s first few minutes on the court involved more heaving than shot making.
That all changed rather quickly, though, as he got going in the second quarter, scoring eight points on 4-of-5 shooting. He got to the basket with ease, looked comfortable running the break, stopped on a dime en route to an open jumper and even drained one from distance.
In the second half, he hit his only two shots of the third quarter and followed it up with a six-point fourth, including four straight makes from the charity stripe. Although he didn’t play starter minutes (28), Bledsoe certainly looked healthy on his way to 19 points, six rebounds, three steals and two assists.
While ultimately Bledsoe will find his way back into the starting lineup, there’s no need to rush him back just yet. After a two-week break, he first needs to pass a series of tests to prove he can play 35 to 40 minutes a night again. Friday night, he passed with flying colors. Saturday night, the second game of a back-to-back will serve as the next test.
Will he pass this one, as well?
Does Phoenix keep Gordon Hayward under 10 shots?
On a team like that the Jazz that is clearly in rebuild mold, Gordan Hayward is undoubtedly the go-to guy.
Despite the fact that Hayward is very good all-around play, it’s not a role that suits him all that well. At least it hasn’t through the first 17 games of the 2013-14 season.
With Utah looking to make up for the 60 points per night it lost this summer, Hayward, by default has become option No. 1 on offense. That was all well and good when he was facing players out of the Horizon League on the way to an appearance in the NCAA National Championship, but he’s a long way from Butler these days.
Teams in the NBA catch on to trends quickly, and for Tyrone Corbin’s squad, the trend has been getting the ball to Hayward early and often.
Friday night, Jeff Hornacek, a former Utah assistant who worked quite a bit developing Hayward’s game the last two seasons, made a conscious effort to take the third-year pro out of the game. Whether it was P.J. Tucker, Gerald Green or Eric Bledsoe, nothing was easy for Hayward in the Jazz’s 11-point loss.
For only the second time this season, the former Butler standout was held to 10 shot attempts or less. And while he hasn’t exactly been lighting it up from the field (38.8 percent) with his increased number of touches, taking five shot attempts away from an opposing team’s leading scorer (16.5 points per game), especially one that lacks many other scoring threats, is a big deal.