The Phoenix Suns have won 10 more games than the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA season thus far. And yet, Atlanta holds a 3 game cushion for the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference while the Suns are fighting tooth and nail for their first post-season action in 3 seasons. Such is the talent gap between the East and West. Tonight is a chance for Phoenix to emphasize that gap.
Phoenix beat Atlanta in a track meet earlier this month, 129-120. Despite both teams being on the second night of a back-to-back, given the Hawks' propensity for giving up points (17th in defensive rating), it would be fair to expect more of the same. Atlanta has been streakier than Channing Frye, losing 6 in a row then winning 5 in a row before dropping their last 2 straight. It's probably no coincidence that the last 2 losses have come without ace 3-point shooter Kyle Korver in the line-up. He is listed as day-to-day with back spasms and could miss tonight's game. That would be a boon for Phoenix.
The Suns' frontcourt will have its hands full with Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll, both of whom have played well in the absence of Al Horford this season. Millsap is both Atlanta's leading scorer and rebounder since Horford went down. The way Phoenix has been hemorrhaging points in the paint, I would expect the Hawks to go to him early and often. It will be the Suns' first time playing against Millsap as he missed the first game with Phoenix due to a knee injury.
Phoenix has won their last 3 games despite inconsistent play at both ends of the court. This has moved them to within a half-game of both the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies (who hold a tie-break over the Suns). This is a should-win game for a team sorely in need of them.
Eric Bledsoe's strong return should continue with a match-up against the Hawks' Jeff Teague. In the last game against the Suns, Teague looked All-NBA, with 29 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds. Bledsoe's on-ball defense should prevent a repeat of that performance. Additionally, the Suns should be able to generate some serious offense against an Atlanta team that ranks in the bottom half of the league in both opponent FG% and 3PT%.
Note: For the Hawks, I've used the statistical leaders who are expected to be available for tonight's game.
The Hawks' Undersized Backcourt vs. The Suns' Undersized Backcourt - It's not often Phoenix plays a team that runs out a pair of 6'3" or shorter guards in their starting five, but that's just what Atlanta has in Jeff Teague and Shelvin Mack. With Bledsoe matching up with Teague, Goran Dragi? should run wild on Mack. Unless Kyle Korver plays, in which case, the backcourt match-ups will become something of a chess game between Jeff Hornacek and Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer.
And as mentioned above, Channing Frye and Markieff Morris will be tasked with checking Paul Millsap. Frye is the better rim defender (allowing 51.9% at the rim vs. 56.0% for Morris), but Morris is more mobile. If the Suns can find their defensive intensity and limit the rest of the Hawks, then maybe Millsap gets his and the Suns win anyway.
No bones about it, this should be a Phoenix win going away, especially if Korver doesn't play. But since nothing has been a given with this team, I think it will be another close and high-scoring affair. 113-107, Suns
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The Phoenix Suns continued a disturbing trend by starting another game lacking focus, but still managed to claw back and stun the Minnesota Timberwolves in a game that went right down to the wire.
It took Eric Bledsoe 63 whole seconds to pick up two fouls and head to the bench. With him sidelined, Goran Dragic shouldered the early load by pinballing a three pointer around the inside of the rim before it finally went through, then scoring on a twisting, pivoting move inside the lane. Corey Brewer was leading the charge for Minnesota with two wide open fast break dunks and a corner three.
The Suns jumped to a 9-6 lead, but things quickly deteriorated as Minnesota reeled off a 27-7 run. The Suns pernicious combo of porous defense (allowing 64% shooting) and poor ball security (seven turnovers) allowed the Timberwolves to feast with a pack mentality. Gerald Green didn't seem too interested in taking his share of the early pummeling, as he picked up three early fouls and joined Bledsoe on the bench for extra rest and reflection.
The Suns ended up giving up 41 points in the quarter. 41. Kevin Love led the stampede with 10 points, six rebounds and five assists.
First Quarter: Timberwolves 41, Suns 27
The Wolves continued the onslaught, scoring eight straight to start the second and push their lead to 22. When Dante Cunningham dunked a lob pass that Ricky Rubio threw up from behind the three point line Minnesota had already scored 18 points off of Suns turnovers in less than 15 minutes of basketball.
The Morris brothers were trying to keep it close, as they scored 17 consecutive points for the Suns to bridge the first and second quarters. A 12-2 burst by Phoenix pulled the Suns within 12 (53-41) as they prevented the game from getting completely away from them. From there on the teams appeared content to trade baskets, a strategy that seemed more sagacious from the perspective of the team leading by double digits.
The Suns were able to close the game to 11, the closest they had been all quarter, when P.J. Tucker serendipitously ended up with a loose ball that Bledsoe kicked away and heaved it up for a three at the buzzer.
Markieff Morris finished the half with 15 points and five rebounds and the Suns also got solid contributions from Marcus and Ish Smith off the bench. Love scored nine more in the second quarter to give him a game high 19. Phoenix accomplished the dubious feat of trailing by 11 points despite shooting 61% from the field in the first half. Minnesota outscored Phoenix 23-5 on points off of turnovers and was +10 at the free throw line.
At least it was pretty easy to see what Phoenix needed to shore up.
Halftime: Timberwolves 73, Suns 62
Kevin Martin kicked off the second half festivities with a wide open three pointer from the corner. Maybe the Suns were practicing missing that rotation at halftime? The Suns looked a little more engaged after that, though, and suddenly cut the lead to six after back-to-back and-one three point plays by Bledsoe and Tucker.
The Timberwolves were getting their offense from Kevin Love and technical free throws, as both Tucker and Suns assistant coach Mike Longabardi drew the ire of the referees. Free throws period were sustaining the Wolves, as they hit eight of them sandwiched around a Love three.
The Suns kept chipping away and Markieff twice cut the deficit to five points before Minnesota whirled off a 7-0 run in less than a minute to pull back ahead 94-82. Every time the Suns appeared on the cusp of making things really interesting they failed to get a stop or made some kind of mental mistake... like Gerald Green getting whistled for the Suns third technical foul of the quarter for taunting after he made a three to cut the lead to eight (99-91) near the end of the period.
The Kevin's (Martin and Love) were a combined 19-21 from the free throw line as the Wolves held a 25-9 scoring advantage there... and the Suns kept on gifting them trips.
Third Quarter: Timberwolves 103, Suns 93
The intensity the Suns had so sorely lacked at the beginning of the game was clearly evident at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The tone of the game seemed to be that Phoenix was clawing to get back in while Minnesota was clinging to a narrowing margin.
With 7:13 remaining Goran Dragic hit a three over the outstretched arms of a defending Kevin Love and the Suns had climbed all the way up the mountain to lead 107-106. There was a hush over the crowd and a fire burning in the eyes of the visiting Suns.
The free flowing offense the Wolves enjoyed through three quarters was uglied up by a suddenly turned tenacious defense. The stark contrast from their defense earlier makes it hard to decide whether to criticize them for the earlier play or credit them for the latter. They probably deserve both.
The Wolves responded to the Suns' surge, though, and there were five lead changes over the next five minutes. Kevin Love scored on an improbable circus shot that he heaved in the general direction of the basket while being fouled and then hit his free throw to put Minnesota up 116-115. Moments later Tucker floated in a tear drop from the baseline to knot things back up at 118.
On the next possession Love had the ball knocked loose as Markieff defended and Bledsoe broke free for a layup at the other end. After another stop by a suddenly dominating defensive squad Phoenix was able to secure the huge comeback victory by hitting their free throws in the closing moments.
Final Score: Suns 127, Minnesota 120
Obviously Kevin Love had another monster game, but Markieff was instrumental in helping the Suns hang around early when Minnesota threatened to turn the game into a laugher and late when he helped the Suns finish off their dramatic comeback. Morris finished with 25 points and eight rebounds.
This was a game the Suns absolutely had to have. They still have their work cut out to get to playing 48 minutes of consistent basketball, but they showed enough moxie to hint that they might be on their way. They're far from perfect, but they're still fighting hard.