Preview: Hornets (32-34) at Suns (40-26)


Suns 120, Hornets 106

PHOENIX — When I saw that the Suns would host a seven-game homestand in March, I immediately thought that could be a time for the team to make some hay in what figured to be a bunched up Western Conference.

Not that this was going to happen again, but the Suns won their last nine in US Airways Center last season to at least momentarily get back in the playoff race, although their road record during that time ultimately kept them out.

Thus far on this seven-gamer the Suns have won just one of their first three games. Mind you those losses have comes to the Nos. 1 and 4 teams in the West, but the Suns really need to finish this homestand strong to keep their seeding, and that starts tonight with struggling New Orleans coming to town.

The Suns enter play tonight percentage points behind San Antonio for the No. 6 spot in the West and are just one game ahead of Portland for eighth. Phoenix is pretty safely ahead of the lottery teams, but obviously eighth and a dreaded first-round matchup with the Lakers is within clear view.

A win against New Orleans is one that Phoenix needs to get, as the Hornets have been hit by the injury bug pretty hard. Star guard Chris Paul has been out for five weeks after left knee surgery, and sharpshooter Peja Stojakovic is out with a lower abdominal strain. Forward James Posey did not travel to Phoenix because of flu-like symptoms and Sean Marks is slated to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery on Tuesday, if that even matters.

Because off all these injuries, particularly the one suffered by CP3, New Orleans has lost eight of 10 and is 7-14 since Paul got injured, including the game he got hurt in. These last 21 games have effectively ended the Hornets’ hopes of a playoff berth.

Darren Collison has done an admirable job filling in for Paul, averaging 21.6 ppg, 8.3 apg and 3.9 rpg in February, and he’s put up 16.7 and 11.7 in March. But the team has been losing, and the Hornets lose the advantage of having arguably the best point guard in the league as well as one of the better backups in the NBA with Collison having to handle the point guard duties alone. At full strength, that is some kind of a dynamic point guard duo.

When talking about the best point guards in the league it’s only appropriate to bring up Steve Nash, despite his struggles of late. After playing through pain in his back and abdomen for the last few weeks, Nash felt a lot better but still wasn’t exactly himself Friday against the Lakers. He contributed 14 points and eight assists, solid numbers but not Nash numbers.

Nash, who will be playing in his 1,000th career game tonight, just hasn’t been the same scoring threat since the break, although he’s actually upped his assists from 11.1 to 11.4. Still, he’s recorded more assists than points since the break, as he has averaged just 10.8 points per game, after going for 18.3 before the break, and he’s scored 20 points just once in 12 games after doing so 22 times in 53 games before the break.

He’s also now shooting 42.5 percent from the field and 26.3 percent from three after shooting 51.9 percent from the field and 43.7 from three pre-break. Those numbers would be worse if not for an 8-fo-9 performance from the field and 2-for-3 from three game Feb. 24 against Philly after taking the OKC game off.

“I think he’s struggling a little bit, just a little bit though,” head coach Alvin Gentry said of Nash. “That all will come. His timing is a little bit off. With Steve you get maximum effort every single night out, so I’m not worried about that coming together. It will all come together for us.”

After the Suns lost their first game since Jan. 22 against Chicago when winning the rebounding battle Friday against the Lakers, rebounding figures to go a long way toward determining the winner in this one. The Hornets throttled the listless Suns on the glass by a margin of 56-38 in a win over Phoenix on Nov. 19, but the Suns dominated it 45-29 in a 20-point win on Nov. 11 and took it 44-38 in a Feb. 1 victory.

As we all know, rebounding is all about effort, and if the Suns play with requisite effort, this one should be a ‘W.’

And 1

Leandro Barbosa will not return from wrist surgery tonight, The Arizona Republic reported, but Gentry expects to have LB back Tuesday against Minnesota, exactly seven weeks after he underwent surgery on his right shooting wrist. … Gentry has been fined $25K for improper conduct toward an official and failing to leave the floor in a timely manner after being ejected from Friday’s game. Gentry got two technicals and was tossed when he believed a Pau Gasol foul on Lou Amundson should have been ruled a flagrant because Gasol got Lou in the face. The foul was subsequently upgraded by the league to a flagrant one, exactly what Gentry pleaded for at the time of the foul. Is it fair for Gentry to face that stiff of a fine when the league ultimately sided with him? I have a feeling I know how Doc Rivers would respond to that question.