Preview: Utah Jazz (13-10) at Phoenix Suns (8-15)


Phoenix Suns 99, Utah Jazz 84



PHOENIX — With their gritty, last-second 82-80 win over the Memphis Grizzlies Wednesday night, the Phoenix Suns crossed off quite a few things on their wish list.

End a seven-game losing streak? Check. Beat a team with a winning record? Check. Win a game in December? Check. Win a game despite shooting under 40 percent? Check.

While the Suns did their part in scribbling off a few short-term items on their December agenda, heading into Friday night’s home contest against the Utah Jazz, Alvin Gentry’s squad still has plenty of goals it wishes to accomplish over the holiday season.

Although Goran Dragic and his teammates were relieved after his late-game heroics saved the day against Memphis, the Suns point guard said it best Wednesday.

“It feels great to finally win against a good team,” Dragic said. “But, the next game is against Utah. It doesn’t matter if you win today if you don’t go for the next one against Utah.”

The “next game” mentality is an important one for Phoenix, especially when talking about Friday’s visitors. As the Suns sit at an underwhelming 8-15, they can look across the way at a team that stands exactly where they they’d like to be at the quarter mark of the season.

Like the Suns, Utah inserted several new pieces into its starting lineup in the off-season — Mo Williams, Marvin Williams, Randy Foye — but also placed an emphasis on trying to develop its young talent — Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Enes Kanter — in 2012-13. However, through the first 23 games, the Jazz seem to be having an easier time putting the pieces together.

Going into Friday’s road game in US Airways Center, Utah sits in the No. 6 spot in the Western Conference standings and has already beaten the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers (twice).

Their list of 13 wins also includes a convincing 94-81 victory over the Suns back on Nov. 10. While the Suns were playing on the second of a back-to-back — the first game of which was their historic 26-point home comeback win over the Cleveland Cavaliers — the Jazz exposed a major weakness that has proven true throughout Phoenix’s first 23 games.

In their 13-point victory, the Jazz employed a heavy dose of their three athletic bigs — Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Favors — and Phoenix had no match for their versatility or range at either end of the floor. The trio combined for 55 points and 33 rebounds, both Jefferson and Millsap recorded rather effortless double-doubles and Phoenix had no answer.

Despite the fact Marcin Gortat put together his worst offensive performance of the season (one point on 0-of-6 shooting) in Salt Lake City, both he and Luis Scola (who led the team with 21 points) at the defensive end, particularly outside the paint, looked completely lost. In dragging Scola and/or Gortat (who at the time led the league in blocked shots) outside their respective comfort zones, Utah created plenty of opportunities for Marvin Williams and Hayward, who combined for 31 points.

The Suns are not the only team to be victimized by Utah’s versatility. The Jazz don’t play at a particularly fast pace (ranked No. 19 with 94.3 possessions per game), but Tyrone Corbin understands his personnel well enough to put them in a position to not only succeed, but succeed efficiently. The Jazz ranks No. 2 in the league in offensive rebound rate (32.6 percent), No. 7  in offensive efficiency (105.8 points per 100 possessions), No. 8 in turnover ratio (13.6 per 100 possessions) and No. 8 in assist ratio (17.4 per 100 possessions).

Although Utah’s most recent win over the Spurs came on a buzzer-beater by Mo Williams, when the Jazz have won this season it usually hasn’t been by a terribly close margin. Nine of the team’s 13 wins have come by seven points or more and five have come by more than 10 points.

Keys for Phoenix

Be Aggressive. The Suns won Wednesday night’s game against the Grizzlies for one reason: They remained physical for all 24 minutes in the second half. Memphis continued to throw its best shots at Phoenix with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in the interior, but Markieff Morris, Scola and Jermaine O’Neal didn’t back down. Against the trio of Jefferson/Millsap/Favors, the same will have to take place tonight if the Suns want to put together any semblance of a winning streak. Utah had 56 paint points and 42 rebounds in the two teams’ first meeting. If they allow the same to happen Friday night, the Suns don’t have enough talent to keep up.

Let Dudley Do Right. Jared Dudley didn’t make the big shot or big stop down the stretch, but Wednesday’s win had his fingerprints all over it. On a good team, like the Suns of 2009-10, Dudley makes for the perfect boost off the bench. But on a team struggling to find its identity, the fifth-year forward needs to be playing big minutes like he did against Memphis. He does nothing extraordinary, but does everything well. In the fourth quarter Wednesday, he kept possessions alive with rebounds, limited Rudy Gay at the defensive end and found teammates for open baskets. Talent is important to win games, but on this team, high basketball IQ may be even more important. Dudley has enough of that to go around and should be a focal point of what Gentry and Co. want to do moving forward this season.

Beasley At The Four. Michael Beasley doesn’t have the mass to handle a Millsap or Favors defensively Friday night, but at the offensive end if he and Morris see time together, their roles should be reversed. As he illustrated on his two driving scores past Marreese Speights Wednesday night, Beasley should stay in the paint and Morris, who seems to be the more confident shooter of the two at the moment, should play on the perimeter or high post. Until Beasley proves to be more efficient with his shot, he isn’t much of an asset at the three. In his first meeting against the Jazz, Beasley went 3-of-9 with all six misses coming from 17 feet or greater. While there is no guarantee that he will thrive against bigger players in the post, the first-year Sun does have the speed and athleticism to get by slower defenders. Whether he uses those two skills, well, that’s a different discussion.