The Phoenix Suns start the second half of their season after a week long break, facing a Minnesota Timberwolves team that will be playing its third game in three nights, having beaten the Clippers on Tuesday night and losing to the Lakers last night. Kevin Love, the Wolves' leading scorer and rebounder, missed last night's game with "flu-like symptoms" and his status for tonight is uncertain.
The 14-20 Suns have little time left to go on a run if they hope to contend for a playoff spot, as they sit in the 13th spot in the West. Their best chance to make up ground will be in their next 11 games, 9 of which are at home, and tonight provides an opportunity for the Suns to gain a game on a team ahead of them in the standings, as the Wolves are currently 10th in the West at 18-18.
A rested Suns team at home facing an improved but still mediocre Wolves squad which has played the two previous nights and might be missing its best player? Talk about being set up for success!
Will the Suns be able to take advantage of this opportunity?
The Timberwolves starting unit struggled to score without Love last night, as the Lakers starters buried them in the 1st and 3rd quarters to win easily 105-84. Michael Beasley and Martell Webster were their leading scorers with 14 each. Beasley and rookie UofA product Derrick Williams figure to get the most additional playing time and scoring opportunities should Love not be able to play tonight. J.J. Barea is also a question mark after he played only 10 minutes due to a strained calf last night.
Love and Ricky Rubio are the emerging players featured by the Wolves who have been most responsible for the team's improvement from league doormat to team in the playoff hunt, but second year Montenegrin center Nikola Pekovic has been a revelation for the Wolves as well. He's started the last 13 games, averaging a double-double and pushing former Pistons draft bust Darko Milicic further into irrelevancy. The Gortat-Pekovic matchup isn't as glamorous as the Nash-Rubio matchup, but will be about as important to the outcome of the game.
Last season, the Suns swept their three games against Minnesota, scoring over 100 in each including outputs of 135 and 128, but the Wolves have improved from 27th to 14th in defensive rating under their new head coach Rick Adelman, now higher than the Suns (D'OH!). Love or no Love, this won't be an easy game.
When we last saw the Suns, they lost a very winnable game to the Golden State Warriors, getting off to a slow start behind an unusually poor outing from Steve Nash (5 TOs to go with only 7 points and 9 assists) and losing a heartbreaker in the end. Head coach Alvin Gentry voiced his displeasure with the Suns performance in a rant that seemed to represent the frustrations of a half-season of lost opportunities and uneven Suns effort.
Whether Gentry's outburst or the All-Star break will have any impact on the Suns performance as they start play again this week remains to be seen. The clock is ticking on the Suns' chances for this season. Getting off to a fast start with a win tonight after their hiatus will be critical.