When the Phoenix Suns last played the Rockets on February 3rd in Houston, the Suns 99-81 loss was the type of game to make a fan throw his hands up and say, "I can't watch this crap!" The Rockets crushed the Suns from the opening tip and led by 20 at halftime, making the whole second half essentially garbage time. Seven Rockets scored in double figures and the Suns shot only 41% from the field. It was a thorough whupping.
At 8-14 then, the Suns looked like toast. An unimpressive win over the sorry Bobcats followed, then a strange thing happened: two consecutive wins on the road against teams who are in playoff position, the Hawks and the Bucks. Reclamation project SG Michael Redd scored 17, 10 and 14 points, and the Suns go into tonight's rematch against the Rockets at home down only 3 in the loss column to the #4 team in the West.
Of course, the Suns remain in the 12th spot in the stacked Western Conference, with four teams to leapfrog for a playoff spot, and have beaten only one of the current playoff teams in the conference so far. Tonight provides an opportunity to make up ground on the Rockets, and to see how much progress they've made since the debacle of last Friday night.
Now looks to be the best time to face the Rockets, as they played a hotly contested game at Portland last night, but the Rockets beat the Blazers behind a strong bench performance and have now won two in a row on the road against quality opponents (the other being the Nuggets). In a lot of ways, the Rockets are the kind of team the Suns aspire to be this season: light on star power, with lots of role players.
The difference is that the Rockets' role players are more effective and comfortable in their roles, and they're a more fundamentally sound and consistent team. With the right mix of players and coaches, this ensemble type of a team can be very good, as teams like the Rockets, Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers are showing this season. Is there any chance the Suns, with the most recent edition of their rotation, have that mix? Sure, it's possible but they have a long way to go yet. Tonight will give us a good view of just how far that is.
Some matchups to watch tonight:
Channing Frye vs. Luis Scola - This was no match last time as Frye went 1-7 in 17 minutes and Scola went for 14 points and 8 rebounds (5 of them on the offensive end). Markieff Morris didn't fare much better, going 3-10, and the Suns PFs combined to make 0-4 3-pointers. It can't be this lopsided tonight if the Suns hope to win, and Frye needs to continue his recent hot shooting streak.
Steve Nash vs. Kyle Lowry - Lowry is an underrated player, and his style as floor general is appropriate for this Rockets team. He doesn't do anything especially well, but does everything pretty well. Lowry shot only 1-4 in the last game against the Suns, but he also dished 9 assists and had 8 rebounds. Nash has been on fire recently, as he leads the league in assists and has the best FG% of any guard in the league. The Suns must win this matchup but Lowry is not a pushover by any stretch. Lowry's status for tonight is uncertain. If no Lowry, then Nash vs. a certain Slovenian point guard with whom we're very familiar. Per The Houston Chronicle, Lowry said last night that:
"I tried to throw a pass to Jordan (Hill) on a cut. I kind of hyper-extended it, strained it a bit. I just have to do treatment. You know me. I don't want to sit out too many games. I don't want to sit out games at all. I'll see how I feel tomorrow and get treatment in the morning and see how it feels."
Suns bench vs. Rockets bench - The Rockets bench is one of their team strengths and has allowed them to be a consistent team this season. Former Sun Goran Dragic is showing a steady hand running a unit which features Chase Budinger, Courtney Lee and Patrick Patterson. Meanwhile, the Suns have shaken up their rotation, giving more minutes to Michael Redd and Josh Childress, and less to Shannon Brown and Hakim Warrick. Results have been positive so far, but Sebastian Telfair leaves the Suns with questionable backup PG play.
As I mentioned in a weekly recap last month, it's tough to find any of the top 8 teams in the West who look like they won't be playoff teams. Thunder, Clippers, Spurs, Lakers, Mavs, Nuggets are a given. Blazers, Rockets and Jazz can be seen as vulnerable and passable in the standings but the Suns need to start making that push right now by beating the Rockets tonight.
With any kind of standings watching like this, it's important not to get too hung up on what the other teams are doing. The Suns simply need to continue to shoot better, lock down their rotation and seize every opportunity to get wins: no more losses to the Hornets and Nets of the league, and take advantage of home court. Then these standings will take care of themselves.
|Oklahoma City Thunder||25||20-5||.800|
|San Antonio Spurs||27||18-9||.667|
|Los Angeles Clippers||23||15-8||.652|
|Los Angeles Lakers||25||14-11||.560|
|Portland Trail Blazers||26||14-12||.538|
|Golden State Warriors||22||8-14||.364|
|New Orleans Hornets||26||4-22||.154|
[Note by Seth Pollack, 02/09/12 2:15 PM MST ]
Lowry left the Rockets game with a hyper-extended elbow. He's called a game time decision by the Rockets beat writer.
Here's Nash talking about going against his former pupil:
Phoenix Suns Vs. Houston Rockets: TV Schedule, Lineups, And Return Of The Dragon - SB Nation Arizona
If Lowry can't go, former Suns guard Goran Dragic will get the start against this old friend and mentor, Steve Nash.
"If Goran happens to start, he poses very many problems for us as well, we'll have to be ready for him and hopefully we can do a good job limited his opportunities," Nash said. "It would be great to go up against him, but he's a handful so I'll have my work cut out for me."