Time: 10:00 a.m. MDT TV: FSAZ When last the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors faced one another this season, the direction of both were facing in opposite directions. The Suns were slightly above...

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What: Phoenix Suns vs. Toronto Raptors

Where: Air Canada Center - Toronto, ON

When: Sunday, March 16 - 10:00AM ARIZONA TIME!

Set your alarms, Arizona and West Coast Suns fans!  The Phoenix Suns (37-28) will make like the real sun and rise and shine for an early morning tip-off against the Toronto Raptors (37-27) on Sunday morning.  I can't find the statistics to back it up, but I can't help but think the 1:00PM local time tip-off bolsters an already significant homecourt advantage for the Raps.  As they say in neighboring Quebec, "C'est la vie!"

The Opponent - Toronto Raptors

Toronto currently sports the third best record in the Eastern Conference and is a sturdy 20-12 at home.  They are even a respectable 14-12 versus Western Conference opponents.  The Raptors owe some of their seeding to some tremendous underperforming by the Chicago Bulls (due to injuries) and Brooklyn Nets (due to systemic underperformance).  Nevertheless, they have earned their wins via a calculated and efficient offense and stout defense.

There are a lot of similarities between these two ball clubs.  Like Phoenix, Toronto learned the benefits of addition by subtraction, sending Rudy Gay, Aaron Gray and Quincy Acy to the Sacramento Kings for John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes (most of whom form the core of Toronto's bench unit).  Along with Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek, Toronto coach Dwane Casey was tapped for Eastern Conference Coach of the Month in December.  Similarly, this is a young athletic team led by a dynamic guard duo in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Continuing the likenesses, Toronto loves the 3-ball, garnering 25.2% of their total points scored behind the arc, vs. 26.5% for the Suns.

Unlike Phoenix, these Raps don't run.  At 23rd in the NBA in pace, they are the kind of slow deliberate team that have given the Suns fits all season long.  Combine that pace with the 6th ranked defensive rating in the NBA and this is a tough match-up for a Phoenix team that's struggled in the half court all season long.  Playing the role of wild card for the Raptors is second-year forward Terrence Ross.  Ross averages 10.7 points per game, but is capable of going off, notching a 51-point game earlier this season.  With a strong bench comprised mostly of solid veterans, ALL of the Suns will have to come ready to play for Phoenix to get out of Canada with a win.

The Suns

Phoenix has clearly been struggling lately.  The defensive intensity has dropped from earlier in the season and as Dave King pointed out, there are cracks showing in the team's confidence.  Perhaps after 60+ games, this team is no longer "stupid enough" to just think they can win.

All is not lost by a damn sight, however.  Phoenix just snapped a 3-game losing streak by gutting one out versus the Boston Celtics.  Eric Bledsoe is looking as athletic as ever in his two games back from injury.  Goran Dragi? is playing as good or better than all but a handful of players in the NBA every single night.  P.J. Tucker and Miles Plumlee are double-double threats every time they take the floor.  Markieff Morris continues to make his case for Sixth Man of the Year consideration.  And coach Jeff Hornacek continues to inspire confidence in players and fans alike.

Your Phoenix wildcards for the game: Channing Frye and Gerald Green.  When one or both of those guys are hitting on offense, the Suns are nearly unbeatable.  When, they combine for a gnarly 3-18 from the field as they did against Boston... well, you get a team that struggles to score 90 points despite a season average of nearly 105 points per game.  Both players have struggled lately after having near career years from behind the 3-point line.  Toronto could be the cure for what ails them: despite that #6 defensive rating, Toronto allows the 10th highest 3-point percentage to opponents in the NBA.

The Stats

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The Lineups

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The Key Match-up

Battle of Wills - These teams are evenly matched.  This game will go to whoever wants win number 38 the most.  The answers to the following questions will loom large in the outcome. Will Phoenix be able to get out and run or will Toronto manage to slow things down to the glacial pace they prefer?  Can the Suns manage a strong defensive showing for a second straight game?  Can Dragi? and Bledsoe outplay DeRozan and Lowry?  Will Frye and/or Green take advantage of the one weak link in Toronto's defensive prowess?

The Prediction

Toronto is playing to maintain home court advantage in the first and/or second round of the playoffs.  Phoenix is playing for their playoff lives.  The question of who wants it more shouldn't be a question at all.  As much as I think the matinee tip-off is a handicap for Phoenix (and could lead to a dreaded slow start), I think the Suns find a way to translate that desire into a close win over Toronto.  103-100, Phoenix.

There's no way to spin it in a positive light, this was a bad week for the Suns...Going just 1-3 overall. However, this week also marked the return of Eric Bledsoe. Although the team is experiencing some growing pains, there were still some standout performances from an otherwise forgettable stretch of games. Who deserves to be named the player of the week?

The NBA is all about which player and team can rule the court in the most epic fashion and Bright Side of the Sun has teamed up with Crown Royal to rank the best of the best Phoenix Suns players each and every week. Which player(s) ruled the court this week? #ReignOn


Eric Bledsoe aka "The Bled Show"

Weekly Stat Averages:

Minutes: 31   Points: 16   FG%: 41%   Rebounds: 6.5   Steals: 1.5   Assists: 6.5

Eric Bledsoe's return from injury could prove to be a game changer for the suddenly slumping Suns.   Although the team seemingly experienced some growing pains with Bledsoe back in the lineup over the past two games, it's easy to see just how important he is to the overall dynamic.

Bledsoe's speed, strength, and aggressive style of play are unique traits that simply cannot be replaced with anyone else in the lineup.  Gerald Green did a fantastic...nay, phenomenal job of filling in for Bledsoe while he was recovering from his knee injury.  But watching what Bledsoe could do on the court in only two games this week was a reminder of just how special of a player he is.

While EB was no doubt rusty after missing over 30 games in a row, his athleticism, speed, and aggression remained unchanged.  He attacks the defense and pressures the opposing guards, always looking to make a play.  How much better will the Suns be once he re-acclimates himself back into the starting line-up and shakes off the cobwebs?

He averaged 16 points a game coming back from an injury, and still managed to shoot 41% from the field, even though his jumper is noticeably shaky.  Not to mention, he registered a double-double on points and rebounds in only his second game back in action.  The Suns should only get better with the Suns' two-headed backcourt monster now back in effect.

Goran Dragic aka "One Man Fast Break"

Weekly Stat Averages:

Minutes: 38  Points: 23  FG%: 53%  3FG%: 46%  Assists: 5.0  Rebounds: 1.5

Before writing this article I was under the impression that Goran had a fairly so-so week.  After all, the Suns struggled from the field and missed a lot of big shots that could have turned the tide in all three of their losses, and even their win was an ugly one.

However, upon closer inspection of the Dragon's numbers, I couldn't have been more wrong.  Dragic had another excellent week, averaging 23 points off a very efficient 53% shooting overall while knocking down 46% from long range.

This just goes to show how that anything less than outstanding from Goran now seems underwhelming for some reason.  We are spoiled by his consistently excellent play, and have come to simply expect it at this point.

Once again, Dragic was the heart and soul of this team, and he is doing everything in his power to will this team to a victory night in and night out.

Alex Len aka "The Ukrainian Axe"

Weekly Stat Averages:

Minutes: Points: 3.7  FG%: 67%  Rebounds: 2.0  Assists: 0.7

Looking at Len's stats alone, it doesn't make any sense that he should be on this list.  In fact, there is nothing about his play overall that would put him in the same category as Dragic and Bledsoe this week.

So why is he here?  Simple.  Without Len's very timely tip-in plus an and-one at the end of the game on Friday night, the Suns very well may have lost the game, and gone 0-4 on the week.  Len's three-point play sealed the deal against the Celtics, and let the Suns escape with a win in their sloppiest offensive game of the year.

Is that enough to earn the Player of the week award?  I'll let you decide.  But getting the Suns' a much needed victory with his late game heroics at least puts him in the discussion.

So who do you think deserves to be named the "Suns' Player of the Week"?  Vote in the poll below and explain your choice in the comment section.

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Poll
Who deserves to be named the Suns' player of the week?

  261 votes | Results

After 63 games of playing to win, the Phoenix Suns find themselves playing not to lose as they cling to playoff hopes that once seemed like destiny.

"Eighteen games is a lot of games," Goran Dragic told himself out loud after the Suns lost to Cleveland to drop two games out of the playoff hunt on Wednesday night.

That the team is even worried about a 2-game deficit with 18 to go is telling. It tells me that, for the first time all season, the collection of players with the second-least NBA experience in the league are doubting themselves.

One game later, the Suns have already cut that deficit in half by closing out a too-tight win against Boston aided by the Celtics worst shooting game of the season (and second-worst shooting game in the league this season). Eighteen games is indeed a lot of games.

Just like their GM last summer, the Phoenix Suns have found it easy all season to beat low expectations.

It's easier to be fearless when you've got nothing to fear. Loaded with expectations of no more than 15 or 20 wins out of 82 games, these Suns players with the second-least NBA experience in the league had no problem pinning their ears back and playing as hard as they could.

When you're not supposed to win, you don't need a conscience.

At some point, though, human nature takes over. Human nature dictates that we do have a conscience and that feelings of inadequacy are always present, if just below the surface.

After more than 60 games of playing fearless basketball, the Phoenix Suns found their playoff position being threatened by a surging Memphis team while Dallas and Golden State kept winning and winning. At the same time, injuries took a toll on the Suns as Goran Dragic missed 5 crucial quarters leading to two losses (Minnesota and Utah) that really needed to be wins to keep the good times flowing.

After that, a couple of too-close wins (Atlanta, New Orleans) and some tough losses to playoff teams forced the Suns collective to ask themselves dreaded question, "Are we really good enough?"

And like a bad song on the radio, it sticks in your head over and over until you hear a good one to replace it.

These Suns are waiting for that good song to play.

It consumed them in the Cleveland game. A 36-27 team looked more than a 15-48 team they were supposed to be at this point. They played "not to lose" rather than playing with abandon.

This phenomenon, playing "not to lose", is prevalent throughout sports. Football teams running the ball to protect a late lead when it was passing that got them the lead in the first place. Tennis players trying to just get the ball back over the net, rather than hitting the winners that got them there. Baseball teams swinging to make contact, rather than drive the ball.

The problem with these strategies is that you're ceding a bit of control to the opponent, rather than taking complete ownership of that win.

Even during the Boston game, you could see the bad song take over during the second half for the Suns. It's not a lack of effort or energy, it's the lack of inertia due to second-guessing. How many times did Gerald Green pass up a quick shot, only to dribble-tantrum himself into a worse one? How many times did Channing Frye clank an open three off the back of the rim? How many times did P.J. Tucker commit an over-aggressive foul?

It felt like a team that doesn't trust itself. These guys love each other, and they want to win for each other. There is no selfishness on the Suns.

But there is a bit of fear creeping in. Fear that you might let down your teammate. Fear that you might just turn into a pumpkin after all. Fear that not making the playoffs just proves those doubters right all along.

Goran Dragic calls it a "black hole". Black hole = fear. Even in the Boston win, P.J. Tucker says "we made it so hard on ourselves".

Coach Hornacek summed it up perfectly for Paul Coro in Boston yesterday.

"So now they lose a game and they're all disappointed and down and we all get frustrated. We have to realize that we put ourselves in the position where we are at least in the hunt for a playoff spot.

"Part of our success has been the confidence and the high level of them trying to go out there and prove things. Now that they proved it, that's that little edge that we're missing. We've got to get back to where we were not supposed to be a good team and we have to go out there and prove it every night."

It's time to be unafraid, as Ryan McDonough said last summer.

If you're afraid to fail, you're halfway there already.

Shake the fears, Suns. You still have something to prove. Prove to everyone who says you can't make the playoffs that you CAN make it. And WILL make it.

Prove that you are winners.

The Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics just ruined everyone’s happy hour. An early tip time meant Phoenix fans got off work just in time to watch the Celtics and Suns brick their way to the final...

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