The streaking Phoenix Suns host the scuffling Houston Rockets in a Western Conference playoff-like battle on Friday night at US Airways Center.
The Phoenix Suns continue their season-long eight-game home stand tonight by hosting the Houston Rockets in a battle of playoff contenders in the tough Western Conference. With it being Orange Friday, you may have to adjust the color settings on your TVs to handle 2.5 hours of the Suns' orange jerseys against the Rockets red.
The Rockets have only won 8 of their last 15 (the 'Josh Smith Effect'?) while the Suns have won 14 of 18, capped by a big win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night. The Suns are now a season-high 8 games over .500 at 26-18 and have a three-game cushion for 8th place in the West.
But this game could be a wolf in sheep's clothing. The last time these teams met, in Houston, the Suns were a season-high 4 games over .500 at 12-8, coming off a big win over the Dallas Mavericks. They lost to Houston, then lost five more consecutive games before righting the ship.
This time, the Suns face six more powerhouses - every team having won 70+% of their games this season - after the Rockets and a bad loss could be a harbinger of a tough road ahead.
Big thanks to our 'Find the Best' partners for the snazzy graphic! Feel free to click all over that interactive graphic for an in-depth comparison of the teams for tonight's game.
During this stretch of just 8 wins in their last 15 games, the Rockets have sported the league's 16th ranked defense, 15th ranked rebound rate and are 29th in turnover rate. They are not protecting the rim (29th in blocks) and are getting blocked on the other end a lot (24th in blocks against). And a team that lives at the free throw line is only average at getting there the last 15 games.
Offsetting those numbers are great shooting percentages and pace. They are #1 in threes taken and made and 4th in points, and they lead the league in steals over that span, are second in points-in-the-paint, and are third in fast break points, second chance points and points off turnovers.
Basically, they are an extreme version of the Suns, statistically, yet have barely won half their games. Why? Because they've played a much tougher schedule than the Suns. The Rockets seven losses are to Golden State (2), Bulls, Wizards, Pelicans and Spurs... and the Magic. In that span, their only quality win was over the Thunder.
Since joining the Rockets, Josh Smith has been pretty bad. He's made barely 40% of his shots, including only 12% of his threes and 45% of his free throws. He has recently been moved to the bench to minimize his impact on the game.
In his place, Donatas Motiejunas is back in the starting lineup and putting up good numbers. His season averages are 10 points, 6 rebounds but he's had double-digit scoring in 12 straight games until a 4-point stinker against the Warriors the other night.
Unfortunately, the entire Rockets lineup (and bench, with Jason Terry) is littered with players who have career games against the Suns. Point guard Patrick Beverley had 19 points last time and created havoc in the fourth quarter to seal the Rockets win. He's a real thorn in the Suns side. Trevor Ariza is likely to pull a Nic Batum and score 27 points. Jason Terry will probably make four threes off the bench.
In three of the Suns four wins on this home stand, they built a big lead in the first 2.5 quarters, gave it up at some point in fourth, and then closed out a gutty win.
First, it was a 19-point lead with 3 minutes left in the third before J.R. Smith went off for four triples and LeBron James finished the charge to give the Cavs a 2-point lead with 7 minutes to go. The Suns finished on a 19-10 run fueled by Markieff Morris.
Then, it was a 17-point lead with 7 minutes left in the game before a Nick Young barrage took it all the way down to 7 points before the Suns finished on a 17-2 run to close out a 15-point win.
And finally, on Wednesday night, it was a 25-point second quarter lead (and a 15-point lead to start the 4th) that turned into a 5-point deficit on a long Ariza three pointer before the Suns finished on a 13-3 run in the final 2:21 to close it out.
Talk about fantastic finishes, huh?
The guy who could make or break this game is Trevor Ariza. He's a Batum type who goes hot and cold and makes his living being a disrupter on defense and opportunist on offense.
My bold prediction is that, for once, Ariza makes next-to-no impact on this game, in a nice change of pace. I know, wishful thinking.
My other bold prediction is that Josh Smith comes out of his shell and makes a huge impact at some point in the game, helping the Rockets stay in it to the end. We are going to lament Josh Smith, until the final minutes when he misses a bucket on a key possession by putting up a contested two-pointer with the clock winding down.
The Suns are rolling and are at home. The Rockets are reeling and have had little success beating good teams lately. Both teams play at a high pace and make a ton of threes and shots at the rim.
This could be another of the string of build-a-lead-give-it-up-barely-close-it-out games. Let's hope the Suns end up on the winning end.
Suns by 7.
Let's say 115-108.
Guess the winner, loser and score of the game (or come closest) to win a FREE Large Papa John's pizza! I'll give a promo code for a free pizza (order it online) to tonight's winner of the 'Guess the Score' contest.
And, as has been going on all season, everyone gets 50% of a Papa John's pizza by using promo code SUNS the day after a win.