Despite a recent four-game winning streak and what Jared Dudley classified as an encouraging loss to Portland last night, the Phoenix Suns face the prospect of being favored to win only two of the next 19 games (between now and January 31).
The Suns are pretty good at home, with a 9-5 record on the season including two recent wins against winning teams (Memphis and Utah). But that doesn't mean they should be favored to win two-thirds of their home games from here on out. Not against a parade of winning teams.
After the next month is over, the Suns could be facing the prospect of a 13-32 record and a bottom-five NBA ranking even if they keep playing at this recently-respectable and often-enjoyable level of play.
The schedule is just that daunting.
The Suns have nine home games between now and January 31, 2013, but only two of those games is against a team with a losing record (Philadelphia, Lakers). The other seven are against current playoff-eligible teams, which means none of those seven can be predicted wins for the Suns.
Sure there are two more home games in there against Utah and Memphis, who the Suns just beat last week, but to predict another pair of wins against those winning teams would be a break from the tenets of statistical modeling.
Even with the Suns at their high-water mark of the season (they hit #21 yesterday on Hollinger's stat-based daily power rankings!), the Suns are favored to win only one home game between now and the end of January. Take a look at the pic below to see the sked.
As bad as the upcoming home schedule looks, optimists can hold out hope the Suns can ride the home crowd to maybe a couple of upsets. Heck, the Clippers, Knicks and OKC are all due to lay an egg in the near future, while the Grizz, Jazz, Sixers, Bucks and Lakers are far from juggernauts.
As good as you might feel about the prospect of upsets at home keeping the Suns respectable, once you take a look at the road schedule your heart just has to drop.
The Suns play 11 road games before February 1, and only two of them are against teams currently sporting a losing record (Sacramento, Dallas). Only Sacramento is enduring a worse season than the Suns.
Considering the Suns just cannot yet find a way to win consistently on the road against anyone (2-11 on the season), let alone good teams, this next month could get ugly. U.G.L.Y. The Suns can only be favored to win ONE of 11 games: @ Sacramento. And that's only if Sacramento stays on its current head-scratchingly-bad course.
For those following along, that's only three of their next 19 games against a losing team (Sacramento, Philadelphia, Lakers). And of those three, only one of the teams has lost more than the Suns this season.
Ugh. Ugh. Triple ugh.
Take a look for yourself - I'd love to hear some predictions with a brighter side than mine.
I truly hope the Suns garner some upsets and exceed expectations.
But even this most recent competitive edition of the Suns looks to hit this upcoming schedule like the subjects of that show 'Ridiculousness' on MTV: faceplant-style.
Enjoy the recent win streak as long as you can, fans. Because there won't be another one for a long time.
Both the Suns and Blazers brought season-best four-game winning streaks along with them to Portland. J.J. Hickson was riding a six-game double-double streak for the Blazers, while Jared Dudley had scored 20 or more in three straight games. After the game in Portland, only one team would see their streaks continue. Unfortunately for us here on the Bright Side, that team wasn't the Suns.
The Suns got off to a sloppy start in the first quarter, and were playing some pretty bad basketball. Yet a 6-2 run to close out the quarter once the Blazers went to their bench gave the Suns a 25-23 lead at the buzzer.
The Suns took control in the second quarter, with an all bench line-up (including the much maligned Michael Beasley) going on a 16-5 run against a weak Blazer bench. At halftime the Suns led 53-44 and things were looking good.
However, the game turned in the third quarter. The Blazers got it going on offense and the Suns couldn't find an answer. LaMarcus Aldridge, who the Suns had held to just eight points on seven shots in the first half, scored nine in the third quarter alone. The Blazers also got hot from deep, hitting four 3-pointers in the period. The Suns had no answer defensively and couldn't keep up offensively. The final damage was a 31-22 Portland period, erasing the deficit and tying the game at 75.
The two teams traded blows in the fourth quarter, and the game was tied at 82-82 with 7:04 remaining. From that point, Portland's rookie point guard Damian Lillard took over, scoring nine points in the final five minutes. The Blazers took a 64-87 lead with 3:24 left, and things weren't looking good for our Suns. But they managed to fight back and draw within one possession twice in the final minute-and-a-half. The first came on a Gortat pick-and-roll finish to cut it to 94-91 with 1:25 remaining. The Blazers struck back with a step-back jumper by Lillard, but the Suns countered with a layup by Jared Dudley to make it 96-93 with 38.9 seconds remaining. After a missed shot by Lillard, the Suns had a chance to tie the game up, getting the ball back with just under 15 seconds on the clock. The Suns pushed the ball in transition and Goran Dragic found himself open on the perimeter. However, Dragic never looked at the rim and instead passed the ball across the court. The Suns were forced to pass the ball around with no one able to break free before Dragic finally had to force up a tough shot with a second remaining that wasn't even close.
Goran Dragic got off to a great start in the first half with 10 points and three assists. He was aggressive and looking to attack, and knocked down a couple 3-pointers as well. But he disappeared in the second half, recording just two assists and missing every shot he took. And of course, there was that last possession...
Meanwhile, his Portland counterpart really got himself going in the second half and carried his team to the victory in the fourth.
Dragic finished with 10 points on 4-13 shooting and five assists, while Lillard scored 25 points on 7-13 shooting and dished seven assists.
I warned in my preview that we couldn't count on Shannon Brown to continue his hot shooting, and I'm sorry to say that I was dead on with that one. Brown finished with 15 points on 7-17 shooting, and also turned the ball over four times.
For the Blazers, Wesley Matthews only played 9:49 and did not score. Matthews recently returned from an injury, and he tweaked it again tonight and pulled himself out.
Luis Scola had a terrible game for the Suns, as he was unable to get it going on offense and was torched defensively and was crushed on the boards. He finished with just six points and four rebounds, and played less than 20 minutes.
J.J. Hickson, on the other hand, put up a huge line with 19 points and 15 rebounds. The Suns couldn't keep him off the boards all game, and he made them pay.
Jared Dudley moved the ball extremely well, racking up 10 assists with only one turnover. However, he missed out on the double-double by scoring only eight points and bricking all four of his 3-point attempts.
Dudley also did a good job of holding Nicolas Batum in check scoring-wise, as the Portland forward only had 13 points on 12 shots, including 2-9 from 3-point range. Batum also dished out eight assists, but balanced that out with seven turnovers. He closed out his stat line with nine rebounds and two steals. Overall, a strange game from Batum.
Marcin Gortat had a great night offensively for the Suns, as he scored 18 points on 9-12 shooting and hauled in nine rebounds. Gortat was great every time the Suns went to him, finishing in the pick-and-roll, in the post and on the offensive glass. However, he and his fellow frontcourt members really struggled to keep Hickson off the glass.
LaMarcus Aldridge, who was questionable for the game after missing Portland's last game with an ankle injury, finsihed with 17 points on 5-15 shooting and nine rebounds. Outside of a short stretch in the third quarter, the Suns held Aldridge mostly in check for the second straight game.
I pointed to the bench as an area the Suns should have a big advantage in, and they made me look smart. Phoenix finished with a 36-22 edge in bench points and were led by the sprightly Jermaine O'Neal, who finished with 13 points and five rebounds. Markieff Morris also finished in double figures with 11, while Michael Beasley hit a 3-pointer and somehow led the Suns with a +15. P.J. Tucker and Bassy Telfair both had solid games as well.
Three of the Blazers' seven 3-point field goal came from the bench, and Victor Claver led their reserves with seven points, but overall the Blazer bench didn't have much of an effect. This game was won by the Portland starters.
The last time these two teams met, the Suns won easily 114-87. This was the first game after Marcin Gortat spoke out to the Polish media, and the first game with Shannon Brown and Markieff Morris in the starting line-up.
Gortat had one of his best games of the season with 22 points and seven rebounds, backing up his words and taking advantage of Portland's rookie center Meyers Leonard. Brown and Morris also played well in their new roles, combining for 29 points.
Overall, the Suns dominated down low with a 54-24 edge in points in the paint. Along with Gortat and Morris, the Suns also received a big game off the bench from reserve center Jermaine O'Neal, who finished with 17 points, five rebounds and two blocks. Together, Morris, Gortat and O'Neal shot 27-36 from the field.
Rookie of the Year favorite Damian Lillard had a big game for Portland with 24 points, but nobody else had a standout game for the Blazers and they got nothing off their bench.
Portland's starting shooting guard Wesley Matthews returned from injury recently and should be good to go for the Blazers.
Last time these two teams faced off, Portland's starting forward J.J. Hickson sat out with a shoulder strain. He's healthy this time around, and is riding a six-game double-double streak culminating with a huge 18 points and 18 rebounds line against the Denver Nuggets.
However, Hickson's frontcourt mate LaMarcus Aldridge is not at full strength. He sat out the Denver game with a sprained ankle, and his status is uncertain for tonight's game. The Suns shut down Aldridge in their last meeting, holding him to 12 points on 5-15 shooting. However, Aldridge is Portland's best big man and it is a huge blow if he is not able to play. The rookie Leonard would likely start in his place if Aldridge can't go, a prospect Gortat has to be salivating over.
Shannon Brown has been on fire for the Suns in the last two games. However, the Suns cannot continue to rely on big games from Brown. He had a two game stretch very similar to this last one, and after it he came crashing back to earth. Somebody else is going to have to step up.
My hope is that Goran Dragic is the one that does that. Lillard has shown incredible poise for a rookie, but he's still a rookie and Dragic needs to take advantage of this match-up on both ends of the court. The Suns are at their best when the Dragon bares his fangs and is flying around the court making plays.
Jared Dudley is going to have his hands full with Nic Batum as well. Batum was sick in the last meeting, but the Suns won't be so lucky tonight. Dudley is going to have to chase him all over the court and keep him from pulling up for open jumpers off of screens and spot-ups.
The Suns should have the edge in reserves. The Blazers have zero depth beyond the starting five, and their bench includes the likes of Sasha Pavlovic and Joel Freeland. Somebody on the bench should have a field day, whether that's Markieff Morris, Bassy Telfair or even Michael Beasley.