Time: 5 p.m. MST
It’s been exactly four weeks since Eric Bledsoe last suited up for the Phoenix Suns. Bledsoe’s damaged meniscus put a serious kibosh on the Suns’ incredible early-season success. After his injury, many pundits, bloggers, and self-loathing Suns fans resigned this team to an unceremonious tumble out of the playoff picture in the hypercompetitive Western Conference. And while the Suns are just 6-7 since Bledsoe went down, they have held onto the seventh spot in the standings, refusing to succumb to that fate which they did not choose for themselves.
This Phoenix squad is a group of fighters. They don’t win every night, but they battle game in and game out. Maybe that’s because this team is playing with house money. Or maybe it’s because the front office found a rare mix of incredible chemistry. Whatever the reason, the Suns aren’t done yet. They are going to keep fighting until the bell because this team still believes it can make the playoffs, even without Bledsoe. But in order to reach that goal, they have to take care of business against lottery-bound opponents like the Philadelphia 76ers. Let’s break down tonight’s game by asking three big questions.
Can the Suns win the third quarter?
The Suns have been hot and cold coming out of halftime this year. Their last two games are perfect examples of bipolarity. Against Washington, the Suns held a lead and all the momentum heading into halftime, but a poor showing in the third period put them in too big a hole to climb out of. The Wizards will probably be a playoff team, but the Suns are still a much better team. Their sloppy third quarter cost them a very winnable game. Last night was the complete opposite. The Suns were getting blown out halfway through the game in Cleveland. They came out of the locker room and laid the smack down on the Cavaliers thanks to some stellar defense and a big night from Markieff Morris. The Suns are good enough, even on the road, to win all four quarters in Philadelphia. But even if they start slow or trail at halftime, the Suns must win the third to have a shot at bringing their road record above .500.
Can the Suns limit the Philadelphia to just one big night?
Last time out against the Sixers, both Thaddeus Young and Rookie of the Year frontrunner Michael Carter-Williams had big nights. MCW put up a 27-6-6, while Young abused the Suns’ bigs for 30 points and 10 boards. Philadelphia struggles most nights to put five legitimate NBA-caliber players on the floor. The Suns already know where the 76ers are going for their points. I expect to see a much different defensive approach from Coach Hornacek and the team tonight. Phoenix will likely look to double Young in the post and force him to give the ball up. The X-factor in tonight’s game could be Evan Turner, who sat at the last matchup with Phoenix due to injury.
Will Goran Dragic have a noise-making performance?
From a numbers standpoint, Goran Dragic deserves to be an All-Star. He’s carrying a playoff team and has been basically on his own playing without Bledsoe for nearly a month. He’s averaging 19 points, six assists and three rebounds for the season and better than 21 points per game in January. He’s fifth in PER among Western Conference guards, and two of the guys ahead of him, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul, are injured and in serious danger of missing the All Star game. What Dragic needs is a standout game to make some noise and get people talking about his candidacy. The kind of game that might earn him a “Whoa Boy” from NBATV’s The Starters. Right now, pundits are passing the Dragon over for guys like Mike Conley and Tony Parker. While those names are more familiar to the average fan, neither of those guys’ numbers are better than Goran’s. If he can string a two or three 20-point double-doubles together before the reserves are announced, he will have an outside shot to make it to New Orleans.