The Phoenix Suns have done a nice job since Christmas Day to steady the ship, with back-to-back wins over the Houston Rockets and Charlotte Hornets. This coming after Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks had come to town on the 25th, with Doncic dropping 50 points and putting on a masterclass in a Mavericks' win.
Although some might argue that the Suns should be beating the likes of the Rockets and Hornets - given that this team has lost twice to the San Antonio Spurs this season - nothing is guaranteed with this group. The return of Bradley Beal for only his seventh game against the Hornets was big, and gave the organization reason to believe better times are ahead for them.
Which makes the start of 2024 so important for the Suns, as they play their longest remaining homestand of the season to begin the year.
Starting on January 1st, the Suns will face the Orlando Magic, Portland Trail Blazers, L.A. Clippers, Miami Heat and Memphis Grizzlies. On the surface, that run of games is tough. But if the Suns are who they claim to be, then they will need to go 4-1 during this run of games, which would give them a record of 20-16 before they head on the road for three games.
In theory, being 20-16 should have the Suns around the eighth spot in the Western Conference, as high as they would have been in quite some time. That Clippers game feels particularly big, because it would be a chance to peg back a team that is clearly playing better than them right now, and at 19-12 occupies the fourth spot in the West.
But even though the Suns are in a better place than they have been for much of this season right now, none of the five home games are going to be easy. Which places an added pressure on the team to win these games. Beginning with the Magic, and they are a young group that look certain to make the playoffs this season.
They play with an above average pace (100.11), while the Suns sit in the bottom five in this category (98.17). At 19-12 the Magic are legitimately good, and have two young stars in Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner around the joint-second best defensive rating (110.4) in the entire league. Win this one, and the Suns will have earned it.
In theory the game vs the Trail Blazers is the easiest one here, but the Suns have split a pair of games with them already this season. There is always a chance former first overall pick Deandre Ayton can have a revenge game, while last year's second round pick by the team Toumani Camara has played well in the two games so far. The Suns should win, but it won't be as straightforward as it should be.
The Clippers are one of the form teams in the league right now, and have quickly figured out how best to use James Harden next to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Right now the Clippers rank as the better offensive (9th, 117.4) and defensive (11th, 113.1) team, and have as much starpower as the Suns to make this an intriguing matchup and the hardest game of the homestand.
Any game against the Miami Heat is going to be a tough one, and there's a reason they've made the NBA Finals twice since 2020. Their only trip to The Valley - assuming they are fully healthy - they are going to present a ton of problems inside through Bam Adebayo. One underrated number working in the Suns' favor however, they rank third (52.2 percent) in rebound percentage.
Last up is the Memphis Grizzlies, who since getting Ja Morant back look like a team transformed. In many ways they encapsulate all of the ways an opponent can hurt the Suns. They've got muscle inside in the form of Jaren Jackson Jr. and even former Sun Bismack Biyombo, who has proven his former team wrong for ditching him this season.
Then there is Ja Morant - the kind of star who can feast on a below average defensive group - and a pure flamethrower in Desmond Bane. The time to face the Grizzlies was a couple of weeks back when they were a directionless mess. Now they'll feel like they can make the play-in and sneak into the postseason proper that way.
Every team that is going to come to The Valley between January 1st - 8th is going to believe they can win - and as we've just seen - with good reason. This is a tough slate of games at home, but with a seven, five, four and a pair of three game road trips still to come, it is crucial the franchise gets some much needed wins on the board in the first week of 2024.