Phoenix Suns: Predicting the next 12

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images /

With the Phoenix Suns having established themselves as playoff contenders, not just among the most optimistic fans but NBA experts and insiders as well, it’s natural to look ahead and decide how good they can be.

The Suns entered Tuesday with plenty of room for improvement, sitting midpack or worse among several team statistical lists.

Per, they were 13th in field-goal percentage, 46.5; 21st in 3-point field-goal percentage, 35.5; 23rd in points scored at 109.8; 16th in points allowed in the paint; and 14th in total rebounding, average 44.4 per game.

The difference this season, of course, is the dramatic shift toward strong defense. The Suns ranked fifth among NBA leaders in defensive efficiency (108.0) entering Tuesday’s games.

The Phoenix Suns could (should?) create some momentum toward securing a playoff spot during the final nine games before the All-Star break.

The leading teams from the Eastern Conference are a big part of the Suns’ current seven-game homestand, and road games that follow include the pesky Pelicans, the improved Grizzlies and the champion Los Angeles Lakers.

Just for laughs, let’s take the way-optimistic approach to the Suns’ run-up to the All-Star break as they pursue their first playoff appearance in 11 years.

After the home wins over Detroit, Boston and Cleveland, the Suns have the following opponents ahead.

Wednesday: The Bucks are a problem, and they are exploring trade possibilities to become even stronger. Still among the favorites to win the East, Giannis and company. If Chris Paul returns, the Suns should find a way.

Saturday: Joel Embiid will provide a similar challenge in the low block. He’s an MVP candidate and enjoys proving he’s better than other young centers. This is the toughest test of the homestand.

Sunday: The Magic game needs to be a W. No more “we just didn’t have the energy tonight.” The Suns are too deep — assuming the injury situation improves — to consider that as an excuse.

Feb. 16: It’s all about load management. The Nets-Suns game is Brooklyn’s second of a back-to-back — they’re scheduled to face the Sacramento Kings on Monday night and they have the Lakers on Feb. 18. One or two of the terrific trio (James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant) should probably take the night off in Phoenix.

Following what should be at worst a 5-2 homestand, the (at least) 16-11 Suns could have their fans talking about not just the playoffs but a home-court advantage in the first round.

For now, though, let’s grab the reins.

The Phoenix Suns have the opportunity to reach the NBA season’s midpoint in solid control of their playoff destiny.

With only 72 games on the league’s shortened schedule, the Suns will be almost halfway home when the All-Star break hits.

Before then, there’s a huge opportunity to build on a strong start.

The Suns, with Devin Booker seemingly well on his way back to his All-Star caliber level, anticipate quality reinforcements when Jae Crowder, Dario Saric, Cameron Payne and others return.

Fans are understandably a little anxious, too, when Chris Paul misses a game.

Here’s the rest of the pre-All-Star-break slate, where winnable games are in abundance.

Feb. 19: Another trip to New Orleans to face the Pelicans, whose 123-101 thumping of Phoenix Feb. 3 brought the giddy factor down a few notches. Revenge time.

Feb. 20: The following night’s matchup with the Grizzlies is a danger zone, with Memphis among the younger teams aiming to secure a playoff spot and likely to challenge the Suns.

Feb. 22: Back home for the Blazers, struggling without C.J. McCollum. Portland could do Phoenix a favor and continue those struggles until Feb. 23.

Feb. 24: The very young Hornets complete a brief homestand. They are coalescing nicely as Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball boost the Charlotte hopes. If LaMelo keeps hitting 3s, he’s a real issue.

The next two games, on the road Feb. 26 (Bulls) and 28 (Timberwolves), are must-haves for a legitimate playoff contender. It will be a challenge to stay energized.

Finishing out the pre-All-Star schedule are games at the Lakers and at home against the Warriors.

We’re going with a wins-and-losses prediction of 23-12 and a huge bucket of optimism. Think that’s too cheery?

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