Time: 7 p.m. MST
TV: FSAThe Phoenix Suns are getting hot just as the playoff race is heating up in the Western Conference. The team has won five straight and seven of their last eight games to put themselves in the thick of things.
Currently, five teams — the Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks — are within three games of each other in the loss column, with the Suns sitting in eighth place and just a half game ahead of the Mavericks.
The New York Knicks come to U.S. Airways Friday in a must win game themselves, as they sit just 2.5 games behind the Atlanta Hawks for the eighth place spot in the Eastern Conference. Suns coach Jeff Hornacek is aware of the Knicks strong play of late and is excited for a playoff atmosphere.
“They are playing well,” Hornacek said. “They won nine of last 11 and they are in the playoff push trying to get a win to make playoffs.
“It is going to be like a playoff game tonight. Carmelo (Anthony) inside and outside, great player. But their other guys are great players and they go small. Have to be ready for anything.”
The Suns and Knicks are both in contrasting situations at this point of the season. Yes, both teams are in a battle to make the playoffs, but the pressure that both teams are facing is what diversifies the two teams.
“They are in a different situation because they feel pressure and we do not feel pressure,” Suns guard Goran Dragic said. “Nobody expected us to be here. In the beginning of the season people said we would win 15-16 games and we are just enjoying every minute we have.
“Of course we want to make playoffs though, that is our goal.”
For the Suns to maintain their pole position in the Western Conference race, it will be crucial for them to win the next two games against the Knicks and at the Lakers on Sunday night. After that Lakers game, the Suns close out the season playing six of their final eight against Western Conference playoff teams, five of those coming on the road.
Let’s look at some keys for the game.
Does Amare Stoudemire continue his resurgent play?
The talk around Knicks shootaround Friday morning was the resurgent play of former Suns forward Amare Stoudemire. In the month of March, Stoudemire is averaging 16.8 points per game, while posting four 20-point games. He will be in the starting lineup tonight and Knicks coach Mike Woodson is proud of how he has bounced back with the amount of injuries he has dealt with.
“I wouldn’t put it past Amare, but he has had his struggles with all of the injuries,” Woodson said. “It takes a lot of mental effort to do that along with physically, and he keeps doing it. That to me is the sign of a true pro because a lot of guys would say ‘forget it, I have had enough,’ and he has not been like that.”
Do the Suns contain Carmelo Anthony?
The Knicks’ All-Star forward is averaging 28.2 points per game, which is good for second in the league. Anthony was able to get going early in the Knicks overtime win against the Suns back in January. He scored 13 first quarter points in route to a 29-point, 16-rebound game. Anthony will put up his 20-plus shots a game, there is no limiting that, but the key for the Suns is to force the forward to take bad shots and keep him from getting into a rhythm.
Can Markieff Morris continue being the go-to player in the post?
Morris has quietly developed into the Suns’ scorer in the post and it has been a huge lift to the team. In the Suns’ five-game winning streak, Morris has averaged more than 15 points a game during that stretch as he continues to develop his game in the post. Dragic had praise for the big man’s recent crunch time performances and hopes the league continues to sleep on the forward from Kansas.
“He has so many weapons, it is really tough to stop him,” Dragic said. “I am kind of surprised that no one double teams him, but that is good for us and every time we need a basket, we give him the ball in the post and we know he will make something happen.”