Time: 7:00 MST
With a pivotal three-game road trip on the not-too-distant horizon, the Phoenix Suns close out their brief two-game home stand with a visit from the reeling Detroit Pistons.
The Pistons come to the Valley losers of 10 of their last 12 games and are staring at the very real possibility of yet another summer smack dab in the middle of the NBA Draft lottery. Combine that with a leadership group that consists of an interim head coach and a lame duck general manager, and it’s safe to say the Suns are set to square off against a very, vulnerable opponent.
Vulnerability doesn’t necessarily seem to spark a killer instinct within Phoenix. It took a little more than 30 minutes of toying around with the Orlando Magic in Wednesday’s 109-93 victory before the playoff-contending Suns buckled down and got to the business at hand.
Given the early start time of Sunday’s showdown in Minneapolis and the amount of travel in the days to follow, Jeff Hornacek’s squad would be wise to treat Friday night’s ‘getaway game’ with a supreme level of focus — especially in the opening half of basketball.
Whether they will or not remains to be seen, but here’s a look at three questions to consider:
Do the Suns avoid a March Madness-type upset?
Staying with the predominant theme of the month, if the inter-conference matchup were to be placed inside the realm of the NCAA tournament, the Suns would be a No. 11 seed, while the Pistons would be a No. 23 seed — though let’s be honest, if not for residing in the Eastern Conference that seed would be probably be even lower.
With that said, Detroit already landed an ‘upset’ of sorts, taking down Phoenix 110-108 back on Jan. 11 with a last-second shot by Josh Smith. However, the showdown at US Airways Center holds a little bit more meaning. Mathematically, the Pistons are still in the mix for the final playoff spot in their conference, but in reality the Suns’ bid to reclaim the crowded West’s eighth spot is much more of a possibility at this point in the campaign.
As the season winds down, Phoenix has very few games remaining on its schedule played at the friendly confines of the Purple Palace and even fewer against highly inferior opponents.
Friday’s game checks off both of those boxes, however, so it becomes as close to a must-win as possible this time of year.
Which Suns team shows up: the one that got blown out in Brooklyn and let Orlando hang around for more than a half or the one that reeled off a game-altering 27-7 run in Wednesday’s victory?
If it’s the former, an upset might be brewing. If it’s the latter, the non-conference affair might be the ho-hum contest it appears to be on paper.
Can Eric Bledsoe find his shot?
Even before his meniscus injury, Bledsoe wasn’t exactly lighting it up with his mid-range jumper or consistency beyond the three-point arc. At his core, the fourth-year pro is the type of athletic guard who thrives when penetrating to the basket.
Since returning to the Suns’ lineup on March 12, Bledsoe has shown he still has his burst off the dribble, he still can affect the game with his versatility and he can still serve as a one-man fast break when deciding to push the ball up the court.
What he hasn’t shown is the ability to pull up and consistently hit a shot outside of a couple of feet.
In four games, Bledsoe has hit just 20-of-54 from the field. In fact during that span, most of the first-year Sun’s points have come from the charity stripe, as he’s converted on 20-of-23 attempts. His touch away from the rim won’t come back overnight but against one of the league’s worst defensive teams it would be nice to see a glimpse Bledsoe playing the part of a credible shooter.
Was Wednesday’s performance a sign of progress or a one-hit wonder?
In Phoenix’s 16-point win over Orlando, Alex Len tied a career-high with nine points on 4-of-5 shooting to go along with five rebounds. And, fellow rookie Archie Goodwin had five points and an assist in seven minutes of action.
At this point, the expectation isn’t for either first-round pick to anchor the bench unit — that role is saved for Gerald Green and the Morris twins.
However, when considering their age – Goodwin (19) and Len (20) – playing meaningful minutes in the midst of a playoff race can only be a good thing for their development, even more so if they’re both able to find ways to make an impact as they did against the Magic.
The trick down the stretch for Hornacek will be finding those minutes for Goodwin and Len, while also making sure he’s not compromising the team’s chances of making the playoffs for the sole sake of player development.
Essentially it comes down to the matchup on a given night. Friday, the Pistons come to town likely without the services of starting center Andre Drummond (neck). Unless he suits up or the game turns into a blowout, odds are Hornacek will counter the Pistons with a smaller lineup led by Markieff and Marcus Morris at the four and five during key stretches.