If I had to choose two things that should be known about tonight's game, I would put these two things above the rest:
1. It is a big game.
2. Both teams are going to be focused and bring the intensity.
I choose the first one because it seems like everyone has already said it. Nash said it yesterday. Coach Gentry said it this morning. Carlos Boozer said it. We've all said it, numerous times. The fact of the matter is, this is indeed a big game, and everyone knows it. With the playoffs less than a month away and multiple teams trying to jockey themselves into a higher seed, this game has serious playoff implications.
The Suns are 2 games behind the Utah Jazz for the 4th seed (and home court advantage) and only 1.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers for a nice little vacation in Los Angeles the 8th seed. Oh, and another thing: the Suns are the only Western Conference playoff team that has a sub-.500 road record, coming into this game at 16-17. So, needless to say, a game like this would do wonders for our chances at gaining the home court advantage for the playoffs.
Yesterday, the Suns practiced hard. As noted by Seth, the intensity seemed to be higher in the gym as they prepared for what could very well be a first round matchup in the ultra competitive Western Conference. The question is, can that intensity carry over into the game and give the Suns another notch in the win column?
The Unwavering, Unchanging Jazz
Much has been said about the Utah Jazz as of late, but one statement remains a head above the rest: the Utah Jazz are the same team that they've always been. It has been said that the team runs the same plays as it always has, dating back to the Stockton/Malone days. Part of the reason for this is that a.) the Jazz have had the same coach for the past 21 years, and b.) that coach is Jerry Sloan. Coach Sloan isn't exactly known for being what people call a "player's coach" or even "easy going". He coaches his way, and that is that.
When asked about what he thinks has changed about his team over the years, Coach Sloan said, "Oh, just personnel. We do different things, there are things we do now that we didn't do before and part of what we've always done. But we've got different players to make it work, compared to the other teams we've had when John and Karl were here. Other teams run plays, some of the same plays we run. We don't play a wide open game a lot, if we do, we have trouble winning. I don't know, it's just who we are."
Not exactly a resounding response, for those who were looking for some sort of reason why the Jazz are different now than they were. However, I would offer the ageless meme: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Jazz have had success running the "same system", as evidenced by Coach Sloan's record while with Utah: a stunning 1086-651, including this season. So, while the Jazz may not be reinventing the wheel with each season, the way they play basketball has worked for them.
To that end, regarding Utah's style of play, Coach Gentry said, "They grind away at you. They're a very physical team. They wear you down. You have to keep your spacing with this team and you have to make good hard cuts because if not, they do a good job of holding and grabbing, and that's the way they've playe d for the last 21 years."
True that, Alvin. True that.
Battle of the Big Men
As it is with almost every game against the Jazz, the story of the game usually comes down to the big men. Deron Williams is a very, very talented player, and Steve Nash isn't exactly chopped liver, but I believe that this game will come down to how our big men play vs. how their big men play. The Jazz have Carlos Boozer, who is in the midst of another great season, and Mehmet Okur, who is finally finding his stride after a disappointing start. Add Paul Millsap, who exploded when Boozer went down with his injury last season and Kirilenko, who is a very solid defender and can do multiple things well, and you've got a pretty formidable front line.
Compare that to the Suns, who have All-Star forward Amare Stoudemire, the always improving and self-described "enforcer", Robin Lopez, and long range bomber Channing Frye. When asked about how the Suns are a different team with Lopez in the mix, Coach Sloan noted that it gives the Suns "a lot of length, you know, he's a big long player. He's a very fine young player coming out." Coming from Jerry Sloan, a coach notable for his use of big men, I would take that as an immense compliment. Now let's just hope Robin doesn't have a mental lapse and try and send another player into the first row of the stands.
When the Suns' bigs are playing well, we are one of the hardest teams to guard. If Frye is hitting from long range, that opens up the paint for Amare, where he is one of the best finishers in the NBA. Bring in Lopez, who patrols the paint like a small town cop with nothing better to do, and we can almost bang with anyone in the NBA. However, it takes us playing well for that to happen. If Frye isn't playing well and Lopez gets himself in foul trouble, we're in for a long game. Those two players are essential to the success of the team, and when they're on, we're very tough to stop.
Injury Notes/Keys to the Game
- Of the injured Jazz players (Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews, Andrei Kirilenko), only Kirilenko will be sitting out tonight. Deron says he's banged up, but will go.
- Amare went through the whole shootaround today and Gentry said that everyone on the Suns are good to go, so if there was anyone who was actually worried about Amare's blistered toe, you can now rest easy.
- Control the paint. I cannot express how much of a priority it should be for the Suns to key in and make things difficult for Boozer and Okur. With Kirilenko out, the Jazz will be pretty thin up front, and will likely be looking for a lot of minutes from their starting bigs. Make it difficult for them, or even get them in foul trouble, and we'll have a very solid shot.
- Stay home on the shooters. Coach Gentry noted that Korver is shooting 58% from three this season, and Sundiata Gaines has quietly built a penchant for being able long range bombs. Oh, Okur and Williams aren't bad either, as they're both hitting an average of 1.0 and 1.2 threes per game, respectively.
- Play hard for all 48 minutes. Gentry said earlier that the Jazz "play playoff basketball year round ... you can't play 40 or 45 minutes and beat them. I mean, we know that, we've done that already. We played great basketball against them, and we had about a 6 or 8 minute stretch where we didn't play really good and it cost us both games." 'Nuff said.
- Protect the home court. No matter what team you're playing, you always want to play well on your home court. Add in the fact that tonight's game being a big game, and that becomes all the more important. There's a reason it's called "home court advantage"...now let's use it.
Audio From This Morning's Shootaround
Jerry Sloan, Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams...in that order.