Preview: Phoenix Suns (9-9) at Houston Rockets (13-6)



Time: 6 p.m. MST


On their way to a  9-9 record, the Phoenix Suns have just about run the gamut: wins over good teams, routs of bad teams, come-from-behind victories, heartbreaking last-second losses and a few performances that are better left unmentioned.

What Phoenix doesn’t have, however, is a tally in the left-hand column of the standings on the second night of a back-to-back. In fact, the Suns are 0-4 in such contests, losing by an average margin of 8.3 points per game.

To make matters worse, Jeff Hornacek’s squad is coming off its worst loss of the season, a 19-point drubbing in Memphis that saw the Grizzlies outscore the Suns by 27 in the second half despite the absence of their two best interior players.

The challenge won’t get easier for the Suns Wednesday night, as they travel to Houston to face one of the deepest  teams top-to-bottom in the Western Conference.

Do the Suns win the third quarter?

In seven of their nine losses — including the last five in row — the Suns have failed to win the third quarter. This deficiency was put on full display Tuesday night, when Memphis erased an eight-point halftime deficit with a 13-5 run in the first 3:54 of the third frame. By the time the quarter was over, the Suns were the team trailing by eight and never got within six the rest of the night.

Maybe the long intermission kills any semblance of momentum or simply the Suns are not making the same type of adjustments their opponents are, but against a Rockets’ lineup that features two All-Stars and a terrific supporting cast, any extended lapse in the third quarter could prove to be the difference yet again.

On most nights the Suns are not the more talented team on the court, so banking on a fourth-quarter rally time and time again seems like an exercise in futility.

How does Bledsoe bounce back from Tuesday’s abysmal performance?

For the first time since Nov. 15, Eric Bledsoe was in the starting lineup Tuesday night in Memphis. The move, however, didn’t exactly pay big dividends. The first-year Sun scored a season-low nine points on 4-of-13 shooting from the field and never seemed to really have that explosive first step at either end of the floor.

The Suns wanted to ease Bledsoe back into the lineup after missing six games with a left shin contusion, but that strategy lasted all of two games. While its hard to know whether the injury is still a lingering issue, Bledsoe will certainly have his hands full at the Toyota Center, whether it’s chasing down Patrick Beverley or trying to contain James Harden from the perimeter or in the paint.

Goran Dragic would appear to be the better matchup against Harden, who in 14 career games against Phoenix is averaging 19.9 points and 4.7 rebounds per game.

But, we’ll have to wait and see how Wednesday’s contest plays out.

Over/under 20 points and 15 rebounds for Dwight Howard?

While he might not be one of the greatest of all-time, in this day in age where quality centers are not at a premium, Dwight Howard is one of, if not the most dominant player at his position.

When healthy, as he appears to be in 2013-14, he’s a walking double-double machine and one of the league’s elite interior defenders.

During his first year in Houston, Howard (16.6 points, 12.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game) has been exactly what the Rockets had hoped he’d be. Although his scoring is down a bit (lowest since 2005-06), the ninth-year pro has provided the ideal compliment to shooting guard James Harden.

He also will seemingly cause problems for Phoenix Wednesday night, as size and strength are the not exactly the traits used to describe its front court. Though no real fault of their own, Miles Plumlee (listed at 6-foot-11), Channing Frye (listed at 6-foot-11) and Markieff Morris (listed at 6-foot-10) have gotten pushed around quite a bit against the likes of Brook Lopez, DeMarcus Cousins, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez.

Tuesday that trend continued, as Memphis’ Ed Davis, Kosta Koufus and Jon Leuer combined for 58 points and 33 rebounds in place of All-Stars Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. So while 20 and 15 might be slightly above Howard’s season averages, recent history would suggest those numbers might go up when he faces the Suns’ front line.





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