Over the last couple of weeks, the Suns have had several "must-win" games. They've won some of them and lost a couple, yet here they are still alive and within two games of both the 7th and 8th playoff spots with eight games left to play. The Earth has continued to spin on its axis and revolve around the small "s" sun, and simple math tells us that the Phoenix Suns are very much alive and kicking. Maybe the term "must-win" is a bit overused?
Nevertheless, tonight's game versus the Houston Rockets is indeed critical to the Suns' playoff hopes. This will be the final meeting between the teams, with Rockets having won the first two and the Suns prevailing in the most recent matchup last month. A loss would put the Suns three games behind Houston and would clinch the tiebreaker advantage for the Rockets, while a win would lift the Suns to within one game and tie the season series at two.
No game is truly a "must-win" until we start talking about elimination games and we're not there yet. But a three game plus tiebreaker (so, effectively four game) deficit with seven remaining would require a near miracle to overcome. This will be the most important game of the season so far, and a loss would probably mean the end of games of escalating importance. But tonight, the Suns don't need to win five or six of eight, or win both of a back to back in Texas. All they have to do is beat the Rockets, a completely manageable task. Then it will be on to the next one.
Let's break it down after the jump.
When the Suns last played the Rockets, Kevin Martin and Kyle Lowry were out with injury, Goran Dragic was backed up by Courtney Fortson (a player so highly regarded that he played in a nameless uniform that night), Michael Redd scored a season-high 25 and the Suns rolled to a 99-86 win. It marked the first time this season the Suns made it over .500 at 23-22 and placed them only 1/2 game behind the 8th playoff spot.
Unfortunately, the Suns have been treading water since then, while their competitors for that final spot, the Rockets included, have fared a bit better. Dragic went all Jeremy Lin on the league in Lowry's absence, helping the Rockets win all four games of a crucial road trip and earning Player of the Week honors.
I've heard Dragic used to play for the Suns and that he was traded in a move that might not have met with the complete approval of the entire fan base, but I can't recall any particularly memorable performances from him in his time as a Sun, nor any teenage girls who spoke of him as if he were one of the Fab Four in 1964, so I assume he was a nondescript sort during his time in Phoenix.
Lowry returned to the Rockets this week, giving them a potent one-two punch at point guard, although he and Dragic combined to shoot 6-21 in the team's Wednesday loss to the Jazz. Dragic remains the starter, but the Suns can expect to see plenty of both players. It will require solid performances from Steve Nash and the suddenly very valuable Sebastian Telfair in one of the game's key matchups, as the Rockets have two starting-quality PGs.
As a team, the Rockets sit around the middle of the league by virtually every measure: 14th in O-rating, 14th in D-rating, 13th in pace. They continue to miss their leading scorer Kevin Martin, out for the last month with a torn labrum in his shoulder. It's impressive that they've been able to have success this past month while missing their starting backcourt, as head coach Kevin McHale has done an excellent job molding this team in his first season in Houston.
For the Suns, again, this game has the highest stakes, so expect them to hold nothing back. They should play with fire and urgency from the opening tip. Grant Hill is expected back just two weeks after surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee, and his likely return brings questions about the Suns starting line-up. Will Hill start? If so, will Shannon Brown return to the bench? Or Jared Dudley? Stay tuned to BSotS for updates as we get closer to game-time.
As for Hill, former Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich once famously said: "Don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion." Hill might not have an NBA championship ring on his finger, but he certainly has the heart of a champion. His teammates will need to demonstrate the same tonight.
Nervous? Excited? I'm ready to have a lot of fun watching a great basketball game. And, of course, gaining a game in the playoff race.
UPDATE 04/13/12 3:36PM MST: Grant Hill will play but not start tonight, according to Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic.
Hill will return to action on Friday the 13th and play at Houston tonight, just two weeks after knee surgery. Hill last played a March 25 but his white jersey at shootaround indicates that he will come off the bench tonight for the first time since Terry Porter started Matt Barnes in front of him in November and early December of 2008.“Good to go, ready to go,” Hill declared after shootaround today.
PG Steve Nash vs. Goran Dragic
SG Shannon Brown vs. Courtney Lee
SF Jared Dudley vs. Chandler Parsons
PF Channing Frye vs. Luis Scola
C Marcin Gortat vs. Marcus Camby