Preview: Houston Rockets (37-18) vs. Phoenix Suns (33-21)

Time: 7 p.m. MST


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When the Phoenix Suns throttled the San Antonio Spurs on Friday, they looked like a playoff team. They contested most every shot and made nothing easy for a injury-limited Spurs team. On offense, Phoenix dictated the tempo.

On Sunday, it won’t be that easy against a Houston Rockets squad that, like the Suns, can hit contested shots and break down the best defense with a spaced floor and ability to freestyle on broken offensive possessions.

Phoenix saw that first-hand on Feb. 5. Though a lot of it had to do with the Suns’ lackluster defensive efforts, the Rockets certainly displayed their versatility. Forwards Terrence Jones and Chandler Parsons each scored 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting, and that pretty much said it all once Dwight Howard and James Harden got theirs as the Suns fell 122-108.

Jeff Hornacek’s team certainly has shown that matchups have a lot to do with success. The Portland Trail Blazers and Indiana Pacers are favorable matchups, as are a broken and aging Spurs team.

The Rockets are a different animal, unlike any other team. They are coming off a loss that ended an eight-game winning streak.

Here are three things to keep an eye on when the Suns aim for their fourth-straight victory.

Will Phoenix avoid trading buckets?

Hornacek’s emphasis since the All-Star break has been stringing together strong possessions. In the first two games since the break, Phoenix would drill a couple threes to build a lead but then forget about transition defense. The win against San Antonio showed how deadly the Suns are when they string together defensive possessions and then run the ball down the retreating opponents’ throats.

After all, Phoenix can’t trade buckets with Houston. Dwight Howard will likely get his and in his last 10 games is averaging 21.4 points and 13.1 rebounds. James Harden is a hard stop if he’s able to play through a hyperextended elbow (he was practicing with Houston on Saturday). Even if P.J. Tucker is in his jersey, he’s going to find ways to put up points — though watch that matchup because of the touchy relationship and respective flopping abilities.

The Suns need stops. Easier said than done. They’ll probably allow Harden and Howard get theirs, as Hornacek doesn’t like to double. But they can’t allow Jones and Parsons to get hot and score with efficiency.

Can Frye and Green get going early?

Frye and Green weren’t clicking in the last meeting with the Rockets, and they never seemed to break out of a funk. The Suns launched 30 threes and made just eight. It would be an interesting site to see Frye or Markieff Morris manning the center spot against Houston’s bench to get them going, because Omer Asik is certainly less of a threat to take advantage of the mismatch than Howard.

What’s the free throw differential?

It’s one of those easier-said-than-done things, but the Suns must be willing to drive against Howard. Not only will that risk his foul trouble but keep Phoenix in reach of Houston at the foul stripe. The Suns lost that battle of free throw attempts 42-21 in February, and though it’s hard not to foul Howard or Harden, it’s got to be a goal.

Harden and Howard shot 30 of those free throws earlier this month. The fouling also kept the Rockets from running away with it by building momentum, but 79 percent foul shooting — that’s with Howard going 12-for-18 — with 42 attempts is a lot of free points.

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