Time: 7 p.m. MST
This is undoubtedly the high point of the Suns’ season so far. They’ve swept the Pacers, one the league’s best teams. They’ve won four straight road games. And even without Eric Bledsoe, they are sixth in the Western Conference standings. The only question Phoenix has to answer today is whether this high point is a peak or a plateau.
Tonight’s game against the Charlotte Bobcats is a classic trap game. The Suns are exhausted from a triumphant four wins in a five-night stretch. They’re returning home after a tough road trip. And on the horizon are four straight games against playoff contenders before their week-long break for the All Star game. If the Suns are currently at a peak, then they could very easily look past tonight’s inferior opponent and stumble back down the mountain. If however, the team is on a plateau, they should have no problem taking care of business tonight on their home floor the way they did against Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee. The Bobcats are not the same single-digit win team they have been in the past. They play great defense and are coming off back-to-back wins over the Nuggets and Lakers. The Suns cannot afford to look past the soon-to-be Hornets.
For more analysis on this game, let’s ask three preview questions.
Who’s got Big Al?
Many people scoffed when Al Jefferson got $40 million from MJ and the Bobcats. I was not one of them. For all of his defensive deficiencies, Big Al is still a scoring beast. Charlotte’s big-time big man has scored at least 20 points in 11 straight games. He’s topped 30 in five of those games, and had 40 points last night against the Lakers. With Kemba Walker likely out with an ankle sprain, the Bobcats will be relying on Jefferson tonight in Phoenix to help them keep pace with the Suns’ elite offense. Jefferson will be a tall defensive order for Miles Plumlee. Big Al is one of the few remaining big-bodied centers. Plumlee’s athleticism has helped him hold his own in the paint against a lot of quality big men, but his agility may be for not in this game as Jefferson may simply be too heavy for him to contain. To counter that, I expect Coach Hornacek to rotate Plumlee, Alex Len, and Channing Frye in fairly regular hockey shifts to keep the fouls dispersed and a fresh body on the Big Al.
Will the Suns push the pace?
The Suns play the sixth fastest pace in the NBA. The Bobcats play the tenth slowest. Phoenix, as I’ve mentioned several times, is probably still exhausted from their road trip. Charlotte played in LA last night, and is without their speedy starting point guard. There are a ton of factors indicating this could be a slow, plodding game. But the Suns can’t allow that to happen. Their best chance to win is to push the pace, even if their legs are jello. Charlotte’s best chance to score is Al Jefferson. But a man his size can be neutralized by having to run up and down the floor at the Suns’ usual pace. The Suns’ best offensive weapon is their fast break, and I imagine Coach Hornacek will be yelling every chance he gets for Goran Dragic and the rest of the Suns to push the ball up the floor every single possession.
Can the Suns find easy baskets?
Charlotte does two things very well. First, they don’t turn the ball over (lowest TO/gm in the NBA). Second, they clean the defensive glass (2nd-best DRR). Turnovers are the key to Phoenix’s fast break. The Suns force the seventh most in the league which should come as no surprise given the number of fast break points this team scores. Phoenix is also better than average when it comes to offensive rebounding. 2nd chance points are a major part of the scoring production the Suns get from Plumlee, P.J. Tucker, and Markieff Morris. If the Suns come out in this one with less than their usual energy or shooting touch, they’re going to need to manufacture easy buckets to get a win. That means second chance and fast break points. That means beating the Bobcats at the few things they do really well.