Time: 4:30 pm MST
The Minnesota-Atlanta back-to-back is one of the hardest trips in the NBA. But after yesterday’s comeback win over the Timberwolves, the Suns could be on the Siberia-London back-to-back and still be riding high. On an afternoon that secured their first .500 or better season since 2009-2010, the Suns showed incredible resiliency and determination coming back from a 22-point deficit to grab a much needed victory. Though at this point in the year, with the playoff race in the Western Conference as tight as it is, every win is much needed, including tonight’s game in Atlanta.
As of Monday morning, the Suns sit only a half game back of both the Dallas Mavericks in eighth and Memphis Grizzlies in seventh. Phoenix’s remaining March games are against the Hawks, Wizards, Knicks, and Lakers. The Mavericks will take on the Thunder, Clippers, and Kings the rest of this month. And the Grizzlies will face the Timberwolves, Jazz, Warriors, Blazers, and Nuggets. So by April 1st, all three teams will have played 74 games. Considering how daunting the Suns’ close to the season is, they must take full advantage of these next four games and break back into the playoff picture if they hope to actually secure a postseason berth.
But even though the temptation to check the standings and look ahead at the schedule is bigger than ever, Phoenix has to keep doing what they’ve been doing – playing one game and one quarter at a time.
This has been a tough road trip for the Suns travel-wise, the Hawks have it just as bad. They return home tonight after losing yesterday in Toronto. Atlanta blew a double-digit fourth quarter lead, getting outscored by the Raptors 36-15 in the final frame and losing by 10. So while they’ll be happy to return to the friendly confines of Phillips Arena, where they are 20-12 this year, the grief of a loss like that may outweigh Atlanta’s home court advantage. Over the last two months, the Hawks have been streaky. From February 1st to March 8th, Atlanta lost 14 of 16 games. Then they rattled off a streak of five wins, each decided by six points or less. Currently, Atlanta is on a two-game slide. Can the Suns make it three? For more on this game let’s ask three preview questions?
Will the Suns shoot over 50% from the floor?
A surprising fact about the Suns’ season is that they have not lost a game in which they shot 50% or better from the floor. By contrast, the Miami Heat have lost six times this year when they made at least half of their field goal attempts. Now granted this observation is a bit skewed because Miami shoots better than 50% in games more often than the Suns, but nevertheless, this stat tells us something very important: the Suns can win with offense. When Phoenix’s shots are falling, teams have a very hard time beating them. Phoenix has worked hard all year on the defensive end, but their strength is clearly putting the ball in the hole. Atlanta is 22nd in the league in opponent FG% allowed. Though both teams are tired from playing yesterday, Phoenix has a great chance to be efficient against a porous defense and get yet another road win.
Can the Suns limit Paul Millsap?
Dating back to his time with the Jazz, Paul Millsap has had some big games against the Suns. This year he has broken out in Atlanta, making the All Star team and leading the Hawks in scoring and rebounding with Al Horford out for the year. As I’ve discussed before, the Suns struggle to guard opposing power forwards. But given Atlanta’s lack of talent on the wings, Phoenix’s defense should be able to adjust and bring other defenders to Millsap, making it hard for him in the paint and at the elbow, his preferred operating spaces on offense. The Suns may focus on shutting Millsap down, or they may let him get his points and try to limit the rest of the team. Either way, Phoenix needs a sound defensive plan heading into the game lest they get caught overlooking their opponent and lose a winnable contest.
What’s next for the Dragic and Bled Show?
The Suns are 5-2 since Bledsoe returned from injury. Though his shooting has yet to fully recover, Bled is still averaging 15 points, five boards, and five assists in just 30 minutes per game. Dragic is averaging 18 points and better than 4.5 assists per night, so his stellar production has remained high. The Suns’ incredible winning percentage when both guys play is not a fluke. Bledsoe returned not a moment too soon, and these two have fallen into step with one another very quickly. Phoenix will need these two to step up on the second night of a tough back-to-back to ensure the offense runs smoothly. Defensively, Jeff Teague is the main concern as Kyle Korver is questionable with back spasms that kept him out of last night’s game in Toronto. If Dragic and Bledsoe can put in a good shift over the first three quarters of this game, they may could very well earn themselves some much deserved rest down the stretch.