Time: 7 p.m. MST
A late February home affair might not qualify as a measuring stick game for the Phoenix Suns anymore than the previous 53 they’ve played in have. Nonetheless, despite prior statement wins over the likes of the Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix’s rags-to-riches campaign has yet to include a win over Friday’s opponent, the San Antonio Spurs.
Like a character straight out of a fairy tale, it seems age has not withered but rather empowered the Spurs’ title aspirations. ‘Various maladies’ continue to creep up on the reigning Western Conference championships, like those that currently have All-Star point guard Tony Parker reduced to a spectator, but as winter rolls into spring, San Antonio is no less a title contender than its been throughout the last decade-and-a-half.
Beating the venerable Spurs this time of year will not make or break the Suns’ chances of going to the postseason for the first time since 2009-10, however with 30 games remaining, confidence and positioning in the standings often go hand-in-hand.
A win would add an extra notch on Phoenix’s already impressive belt. A loss, well, that could leave the door open for doubt to creep in should the two former rivals engage in yet another memorable playoff battle come April.
Here’s three questions that could go a long way towards determining the potential playoff preview:
Can Goran Dragic play the opportunist?
Going up against a short-handed Spurs squad is nothing new for the Suns this season. Back on Dec. 18, 2013, San Antonio strolled into the Valley minus Parker and managed to leave with a 108-101 victory. In that contest, Dragic drew the assignment of Cory Joseph and Patty Mills, and yet he failed to really take advantage of the favorable matchup. The Suns guard finished with 18 points but shot 6-of-18 from the field to go along with four assists. Dragic is unquestionably a better player now than he was then, but Friday would go a long way towards cushioning that argument with more empirical evidence. Great point guards recognize opposing teams’ weaknesses. For the Spurs, it’s currently their point guard play.
Will the Plumlee slide finally subside?
The Suns front office decided to stand pat at the NBA trade deadline, refusing to sell future assets for a short-term interior scorer. That decision should be met by applause, because the group has certainly earned the right to go down the stretch with the roster as it’s currently constituted. With that said, an upgrade inside might not have been the worst thing in the world. While Dragic has progressed as a player in recent weeks, Miles Plumlee has clearly regressed — whether because he’s no longer much of a secret or simply because he’s hit the wall. Defensively, the energy and effort is still very much present when it comes to the former Duke standout, but offensively Plumlee has become a shell of what he was back in November, December and the early part of January.
In his last 11 games, Plumlee has reached double figures on just two occasions. In that same span, the second-year center five points or less five times. The Suns can win without him putting up 15 to 20 points a night, but they still need him to be somewhat of an asset on the block and on the glass, rather than a liability. He’s averaging 14.0 points and 9.5 rebounds per game in two prior meetings with the Spurs this season, maybe a heavy dose of Tiago Splitter and Jeff Ayres will be just what the doctor ordered.
Can the Suns killer be silenced for a night?
Back in December, the Spurs didn’t need strong play from their point guard rotation, because sixth man extraordinare and resident Suns killer Manu Ginobili delivered a crunch time performance for the ages, scoring 11 of his team-high 24 points over the final four-plus minutes.
That performance came on a night when Phoenix had both Dragic and Eric Bledsoe at its disposal — a personnel option that obviously won’t be available Friday night.
The onus will largely fall on P.J. Tucker to thwart any one-man, game-changing runs, but Gerald Green and Dragic might get some run against Ginobili, as well.
Limit the Argentine’s production and the Spurs’ bench becomes an underwhelming unit at best. Allow him to get hot — be it early or late — and the Suns could be staring at a third straight loss against Gregg Popovich and Co.