After splitting the first two games in Houston, the Phoenix Suns need to beat the visiting Rockets tonight maintain a tie-break advantage for playoff positioning.
The Phoenix Suns, winners of 12 of their last 17 games, face off against the Rockets who have won 16 of 21. Even more recently, the Suns have bagged three in a row while the Rockets have taken 8 of 9.
The Houston Rockets remain the league's poster child for taking the most efficient shots on the basketball court, with 86% of all of their shots being taken either in the paint or from behind the 3-point line. By doing this, the Rockets can overcome the fact that they shoot at or below league average from everywhere on the court but still have the league's 5th best offense in terms of points-per-possession.
The zones in yellow indicate that the Rockets shoot comparably to the rest of the league in those areas, while the zones in red show they shoot below league average.
As you can see, unless you can shoot 50% or better on all of your midrange shots, it's better to take the higher value shots. Over the course of 100 shots, that's a 10-point swing in your favor if you can take higher-percentage shots over lower-percentage ones and it's why many NBA teams build their defense around rim protection and 3-shoot protection.
The Rockets are good at defending at the rim, thanks to Dwight Howard this year and Omer Asik last year, but are not so good at defending the 3-point line, allowing the league's 6th highest attempt rate from behind the arc.
The Phoenix Suns offense this season has mirrored the Rockets in many ways, but is a little more balanced. The Suns only take 71% of their shots at the rim or from behind the arc, with the remaining 29% being in the mid- to long-2 range.
While the 71% mark pales in comparison to Houston, the Suns offense is still one of the league's best (8th in overall efficiency) and ranks as the third-highest 3-point rate, according to basketball-reference.com.
Patrick Beverly has been starting lately in place of Jeremy Lin, who provides scoring off the Rockets bench. Beverly brings much-needed on-ball defense into the starting lineup next to James Harden.
In this game, the key matchup is the Suns defense vs. the Rockets offense. The two prior games, both in Houston, could not have been much different for Houston despite playing the same lineup both times.
In the first matchup, the Rockets made only 35% of their shots and scored just 88 points. In the second, the Rockets made 55% of their shots and scored 122. Over 55 games, that represents the third-lowest points allowed to a Suns opponent (1st meeting) vs. a season-high in points allowed (2nd meeting).
The Suns defense allows the league's fewest 3-point shots made and allows the second-lowest opponent 3-point shooting percentage when they are taken. The defense is designed to run teams off the line and, hopefully, make them shoot midrange jumpers. That's what makes Miles Plumlee so important. If he can stay out of foul trouble and defend the rim, the Suns have a good chance of winning any game.
While Dwight Howard might go nuts under the basket, the key for the Suns will be to continue to defend the 3-point line against the likes of Harden, Lin and Parsons.
*note: James Harden (hyperextended elbow in loss to GS) is questionable for this game
Playing at home and on national television (ESPN), expect the Suns to come out focused and strong. They are playing the entire year with a chip on their shoulder that no one gives them credit, and national TV games have been their showcase.
Add in the embarrassment of the recent blowout at the hands of the Rockets, I really expect the Suns to play the best they can tonight. That might not be enough, since the Rockets are so good and on such a roll, but I think the Suns do win this one in a high-scoring affair.
The Suns are on a 3-0 win streak since the all-star break, and although a few of those games were a little too close for comfort, the "W" is all that matters. Although every player seemingly had an off game this week, Gerald Green was one of the biggest difference makers.
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Weekly Stat Averages:
Points: 22 FG%: .429 Rebounds: 5
On a team full of surprises, Gerald Green has to be one of, if not the biggest surprise of them all this season. When Green was initially traded to the Suns along with Miles Plumlee and a first round pick for Luis Scola, most fans and analysts, including yours truly, thought he was basically just a throw in to make the deal work.
Whether or not Ryan McDonough and Coach Hornacek knew what they were really getting, or if they were just as surprised as everyone else is debatable, but one thing we know for sure is that Gerald Green has finally figured it out, and he is proving to be not only a productive player, but a game changer as well.
It seems as though Gerald has finally found a home in Phoenix, after playing for seven different teams in just as many years in the league. His athleticism, hustle, and deadly three-point shooting have been a perfect fit for the Suns' high-powered offense.
While Green has already posted season highs with the Suns in nearly every category up to this point, it seems only fitting that he finally topped his old career high of 34 points this week as well, scoring 36 points and being the main reason the Suns were able to get an overtime win against the Denver Nuggets.
Not only has Green found a way to contribute to the Suns and help them win by doing what he does best, knocking down quick-release three's, he has also found a way to contribute even when those shots aren't falling. This is something he was never able to do in the past.
Green had an off-shooting night against the Spurs on Friday, going 0-5 from three and even missing a couple of shots from the free throw line. Still, he found a way to get inside and score on mostly mid-range baskets to eventually chip in with 13 points in his 26 minutes of play.
Although the Suns have been without their other star guard, Eric Bledsoe, for most of the season now, Gerald Green has helped to keep the Suns' playoff hopes alive. He and Goran Dragic have created a new back-court tandem, The G-Force, that has been almost as scary for the opponents as the Slash Brothers were.
While Goran Dragic is without a doubt the leader, and the driving force of the team, Gerald Green has been a key part of the Suns' success. He is having his best stretch of games in his career, and is giving both the fans and the front office another reason to feel optimistic about the future.
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While being very different players, Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee bring unique skills to the center position that opponents have a hard time defending.
With Eric Bledsoe reportedly returning to practice in the next 1-2 weeks, barring setbacks, it appears the Suns will be healthy again before they hit their toughest stretch of the season.
The Suns play 14 of their last 21 on the road, including 9 of their last 14, while fighting for playoff position and not only trying to avoid missing the big dance altogether but also to avoid having to face the Thunder in the first round. A 15-13 record in the next 28 games gets them 48 wins and a likely 6th or 7th seed.
Can the Suns win down the stretch? And once in the playoffs, can they win in the playoffs?
The metrics say yes.
And a close look at the metrics shows that two of the most important players on the Suns are Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee. They play together in the starting lineup, but they also share the center position for much of the game as they rotate in and out of the game for rest.
The Phoenix Suns, as a team, have a +3.8 net differential on offensive efficiency vs. defensive efficiency, good for 8th in the league. But some of their lineups offer a much bigger bang for their buck.
The Suns have five lineups in the top-100 of the NBA:
Each one of these lineups is a winner, but the season is so long you can't just play those lineups and nothing else.
"As you got through the season you'd love to say you can get back down to an 8-man rotation," Hornacek says. "But if you look at our schedule in March we would be wearing guys out if we do that."
The Suns will continue to to play a 9 or 10-man rotation, especially as Eric Bledsoe rounds back into form. Ish Smith has earned minutes for the rest of the season, and Leandro Barbosa is a great sub for scoring off the bench.
Come playoff time, the Suns have the stats to show which lineups work the best. They involve basically four combinations of eight guys, with a sprinkle of a good backup team featuring Barbosa, Len and Ish Smith.
There's your primary playoff rotation: Bledsoe, Dragic, Tucker, Frye and Plumlee to start, plus Morris, Morris and Green off the bench.
Five of the top 100 5-man lineups in the NBA. The Suns won't set the world on fire when push comes to shove, but they will be competitive each and every game.
Drilling down further, Channing Frye is the only player on the Suns in five of the top seven 3-man combinations on the team. Frye is also in four of the top six 2-man combinations on the team.
"There are a lot of times I like to go with Markieff and Channing," Hornacek said. "Depending on what's going on out there. It gives us a little different look with Channing at the 5. If they have a big [center] out there, we can get Channing some looks."
It's all about spacing. Playing Frye at the center position forces the other team's biggest player to set up away from the paint and defend a three-point shooter - something those big guys are not built to do. In response, opposing coaches have to pick their poison - play a zone which allows their big to stay under the basket, bench their biggest guy, or put him on Markieff Morris who is too quick for him. Any of those options is unfamiliar to the opponent, creating chaos and running opportunities.
"They especially spread your bigs," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said this week. "They have multiple times in the game where they will go with Markieff or Marcus and Channing together at the 4/5, and now you've got two guys that shoot behind the three that big guys aren't used to getting out to. It really puts you in a tough spot."
Indiana switched other players onto Frye, but then were messed up and their top-ranked defense was run over by the Suns.
But playing Frye at the five for long minutes only works when there's a big lineup employed by the other team. The Wizards simply assigned Trevor Ariza to Frye's hip and let the game become a 4-on-4 when the Suns were on offense. The Suns didn't respond well, and lost the game.
Plumlee will remain in the rotation because he provides rim defense that most of the team lacks, and the Suns will need that when the games slog down.
Plumlee was better with the Dragic-Bledsoe backcourt because he didn't have to be an offensive weapon. He could defend the rim and flash to the basket for dunks.
Opposing coaches give Plumlee respect, so should Suns fans.
"They play nine people in their rotation (sometimes ten with Len)," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said this week. "Out of those nine, seven shoot it great and the other two are dynamite to the rim. The two that I'm talking about are [Miles] Plumlee and Ish Smith. The rest of them are very capable of going for big nights behind the arc."
But it's not all about shooting threes.
"What makes it really go, in my opinion," Stevens said. "Are those threats at the rim. So you've Dragic who can get in the paint, Ish Smith can get in the paint, Barbosa's been a great addition.
"And then Plumlee, obviously, every time he rolls you'd better think about him rolling. Otherwise it ends in a dunk. I've coached against him before in college twice, and that was the case when they played at Duke as well. Every time he rolls, that opens up lanes for the shooters."
The Suns have the firepower to play well against most teams and most lineups. Like most every other NBA team, the Suns will struggle against the likes of Oklahoma City and Miami.
But against the rest of the current West playoff seeds? The Suns have beaten all of them. Every single one. San Antonio. Los Angeles Clippers (in LA). Houston (in Houston). Golden State. Portland. Dallas.
No one is going to see the Suns as an easy out in the playoffs. In fact, many teams might dread that possibility.
And they should.