Time: 4:00 pm MST
The 1971-72 Phoenix Suns won 49 games and missed the playoffs. Now that was at a time when the NBA had fewer teams and fewer playoffs spots, but nevertheless, that same fate could easily befall this year’s Suns. Phoenix was supposed to put the Dallas Mavericks in their rear view last night, but Dirk and Co. had other ideas. Their overtime win over the Thunder put Dallas back ahead of Phoenix by a half game for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. The Suns aren’t quite in “every game is a must win game” territory yet, but they can certainly see it rapidly approaching on the horizon. In the modern era of 16 playoff teams, only the 2007-08 Golden State Warriors have missed the playoffs with 48 wins. That scenario seems destined to be repeated by the Suns, Mavericks, or Grizzlies this year. If the Suns want to avoid being the odd man out, they have to take care of business in winnable games, like tonight’s matchup with the Washington Wizards.
The Wizards have lost three of four and are currently sixth in the Eastern Conference. Starting power forward Nene has been out for a month and is still a week or more away from returning to practice. John Wall has kept the team afloat in his absence averaging a near double-double in the month of March (19 points and 9.8 assists per game.) He’s also knocking down 49% of his threes this month. Former Sun Marcin Gortat has been great as well, averaging over 13 points and 11 boards per game over the last month. He has dealt with some back problems recently, but they haven’t seemed to bother him the last few games. Though Washington hasn’t beaten a Western Conference playoff team since the first week of February, they are not a squad the Suns can afford to overlook. The Wizards took down Phoenix in Phoenix back in January precisely because the Suns underestimated them. Phoenix was coming off their first win over Indiana and got caught napping. With their playoff hopes hanging by a thread, the Suns can’t afford to sleep on anyone. For more on this game, let’s ask three preview questions.
Which team wins the point guard battle?
John Wall vs. the Dragic-Bledsoe tag team may not be a fair fight, but who really wants to watch a fair fight. Wall is the engine that makes the Wizards go. He can score with the best point guards in the league. He gets easy buckets for his teammates. And his quickness is dangerous on both ends of the floor. Luckily for the Suns, they have not one but two great point guards. While Eric Bledsoe has been scoring in bunches lately, his biggest responsibility in this game may be defending Wall. That will put the scoring load in the capable of hands of Dragic, who has quietly kept his production high since Bledsoe’s return.
Can Phoenix win the rebounding battle?
Last time out against the Wizards, the Suns shot 48% from the field and outscored Washington in the paint, but still lost the game. How did that happen? Phoenix gave up 19 offensive rebounds and lost the overall battle of the boards 44-30. That absolutely cannot happen tonight. Phoenix has been rebounding better lately, but they are still vulnerable on the defensive glass. No Nene for the Wizards takes some of the pressure off, but Trevor Booker, who is starting in Nene’s place, had six offensive rebounds against the Suns in January, so Phoenix will have to have a body on him at all times.
Can the bench handle the scoring load?
The Suns’ bench is one of the best in the league, especially on the offensive end. Gerald Green may be streaky, but he’s one of the best off-the-bench scorers around. Likewise Markieff Morris is having a breakout year as a sixth man, and his brother has grown his game as well. The Wizards are a very shallow team. Phoenix must take advantage when the starters go to the bench. The Suns have been able to rely on at least two of their reserves stepping up in each game of this win streak. The bench will be called upon again tonight to keep that streak alive.