Time: 7:00 pm MDT
The Suns have blown away their critics this year with big wins over big teams like the Portland Trail Blazers (twice) and Houston Rockets. But the reason the Suns aren’t considered contenders in the Western Conference is because of their losses to sub-par teams like Brooklyn, Sacramento (twice), and Utah. If Phoenix is going to be taken seriously this season, they will have to take care of business against inferior competition, especially at home. Right now, the Suns are primed to do just that. Both Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe are fully healthy. Channing Frye is playing his best basketball in years. P.J. Tucker has turned into the best Swiss Army Knife in the NBA. And the Suns have a bench full of guys who can drop 15-20 points on any given night.
The Toronto Raptors on the other hand are struggling mightily, despite playing in the historically abysmal Atlantic Division. Toronto is having a hard time making their disparate pieces fit together on the court, and the losses have piled up as a result. The Raptors are discussed more for their potential as a trade partner than anything they’ve done on the court. All that said, the Raptors are only two games out of a playoff spot in the East, so they are just as dangerous as any opponent, and Phoenix cannot overlook them. For more on this matchup, let’s ask three important questions?
Who will handle the distribution duties for Phoenix?
While both Bledsoe and Dragic are averaging better than five assists per game, they’ve both recorded five or more assists in the same game only three times all season. Those were in Phoenix’s first two games of the year, and the recent road loss to Memphis. From the beginning of Bledsoe’s absence through his return to the starting lineup, Dragic recorded at least five assists in eight straight games. But Wednesday night in Houston, Goran deferred to Bledsoe and recorded just a single dime. There’s no need for Phoenix’s star guards to settle into defined roles right now. It’s just interesting to watch their dynamic change from night to night.
Which sophomore center will win the matchup inside?
Though they hail from different draft classes, Jonas Valanciunas and Miles Plumlee are both second year players. Valanciunas spent 57 games last year as a starter for Toronto. Plumlee recorded a total of just 55 minutes played last season in Indiana. But just under 20 games into their sophomore seasons, Plumlee has been the superior player. Miles has been a better rebounder and shot blocker than the widely touted Lithuanian, and they are both averaging just under 10 points per contest. Early in the season, Plumlee looked to be a real scoring threat, posting double figures in points in 8 of the Suns’ first 11 games. But since then, his confidence has waned severely and his scoring has slumped as a result. Part of this may be due to the Suns’ lineup changing because of injuries. Part of the slump may have been caused by legitimate struggles at the free throw line. Whatever his issue, this matchup at home to Toronto is a real chance for Plumlee to get back in the groove and show what a productive player he can be at both ends.
Can Slava get some time?
Though the Suns have won 10 games thus far, none of those wins have been “comfortable”. Specifically, the Suns haven’t blown anyone out and had the chance to empty their bench late in the fourth. This is in no way a bad thing. The Suns have been in more close games already this season than all of last year. They’re playing entertaining basketball and proving they can play with any team in the league. But the same factors that allow the Suns to contend with even the NBA’s best are also the reason they have trouble putting teams away early. The Suns rely on defense, threes, and fast break points. When one of those dimensions starts to falter, teams can come back on the Suns as they have so many times this year. Even when Phoenix has won by nine or more points, those wins have come against great competition like the Trail Blazers, Nuggets, and Rockets, teams that could easily erase a big deficit if the Suns started to coast.
What made the 2010 Suns so much fun to watch was the possibility of a starter-less fourth quarter. Sometimes the second unit played so well, that they extended the lead to the point that Nash and the rest could spend the entire final frame on the bench, whooping it up for their teammates. Goran Dragic was the genesis of a lot of those games. I’m sure he would appreciate the opportunity to see it from the other side. Toronto is still a capable team with big-time scorers in DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay, but the Suns are a better team from top to bottom, and they have a chance to really prove that tonight.