So, here we are, Suns fans. Ready for another showdown with one of the league's elite (I don't care what you say, ESPN, I think the Hawks deserve mention as one of the elite teams). As we've seen this season, on more than one occasion, our beloved Phoenix Suns are definitely able to rise up to the challenge. We have also seen, however, that they are willing to mail it in against the tougher teams and accept that they "don't have a chance".
Well, I have news for you, Phoenix Suns: this is the NBA. Any team can beat any other team on any given night. When you're playing well, you are one of the best in the league. Ball movement, open shots, good looks, and fast paced, exciting basketball happens when you're on. When you're not...that's another story. The offense falls flat on its face, too many iso-patterns are run, and the team lacks anything resembling cohesion.
So, you tell me, which Phoenix Suns team will we see tonight? More after the jump.
Welcome to Atlanta...er, Welcome to Phoenix, Atlanta
The Atlanta Hawks, much like the Phoenix Suns, can be a downright scary team to play against. They have all the weapons to be an offensive nightmare, but unlike the Suns, they are a pretty darn efficient team on the defensive end. We've seen what can happen if you give any number of their shooters Jamal Crawford an inch of space with the game on the line. We've also all been witnesses to Josh Smith finally playing up to his potential. The scary thing is, I think he's only scratching the surface. He's athletic as all get out. He is one of the league leaders in blocked shots. He has abandoned his three point gunning ways, and has seen his percentages rise all across the board (even his atrocious FT% is up...well, sorta).
We don't need to say much about All-Star caliber player Joe Johnson, because, well, we all know what he's capable of. He's an All-Star caliber player. He can light it up from nearly anywhere on the court, and once he does that, he's more than able to dish off to a teammate if double teamed. He can be straight up cold blooded at times, and, for whatever reason, it seems that former Suns have fantastic nights when they play in the Purple Palace. Even if they're mired in a horrible shooting slump (think Boris Diaw), they'll still find a way to come out and bring their A-game. Look for Johnson to come out and set the tone early.
One of the players I'm excited to watch every time the Hawks are on TV is Josh Smith. The guy can flat out play, and now that he's rounding into a more mature and cerebral player, he's just that much better. I'm very interested to watch the Amare Stoudemire vs. Josh Smith duel play out. Both players are extremely athletic. Both players can get to the rim and finish with authority. Both players can shoot fairly well from midrange. I give the offensive kudos to Amare, as he's a better finisher after contact than Smith (from what I've seen), but I have to give the defensive award to Smith. No one in their right mind can call Amare a better defender than J-Smoove.
The interesting thing about the STAT vs. Smoove matchup is: Josh Smith is likely still out trying to prove that he's All-Star worthy (after being snubbed...my apologies there, Josh. I was rooting for you.), and Amare is going to be playing like a man possessed from here on out. After not being dealt at the deadline, you have to expect that Amare is going to blow up for the second half of the season. Whether that's to try and prove to the Suns he's worth what he thinks (not likely) or to try and get that max-ish contract this summer (much more likely) remains to be seen, but I'm anticipating a huge second half of the season from our resident All-Star big man.
I'm also interested to see the battle of the young gun centers. Robin Lopez has been playing very well of late, and has developed something of a two-man offensive game with Nash. Al Horford, on the other hand, was named an All-Star this year (I still think Smith should've been in there over Horford, but that's beside the point) and for being a bit undersized for a center, he can sure battle with the best of 'em. I can't really say much about the edge in this matchup, as both players can definitely cause problems for the other, but it'll be interesting to watch.
The Jason Richardson Story
We all know that in most all Suns wins, Jason Richardson has a good night. It doesn't mean that he's the go-to guy on offense or that he catches fire and puts up 12 in a quarter (though he's capable of doing both), it just means that he scores well, hits from range, and stretches the defense. I cannot stress how important it is that the Suns shooters (JRich, Frye, even Dudley and Goran) don't go stagnant. If we're not hitting our outside bombs, the defense can key in on Stoudemire, and it's all a downhill slide from there. However, if we're able to hit our shots and make the defense pay, we're one of the toughest teams to defend. Simple as that.
I had said (and still stick by my words, even though they're kind of obsolete now) that if Stoudemire was dealt, we would all be witnesses of the Jason Richardson show for the second half of the year. However, now that Amare is still in town and will likely be even more hungry to prove his worth (aka pad his stats), it doesn't bode well for JRich. Richardson typically comes on strong in the closing months of the season, and I expect him to be more aggressive on both ends of the court. I don't want to sound like a broken record, but JRich is a vital piece to this team, whether we like to admit it or not. If he's playing well, our outlook is much brighter.
Aside from Jamal Crawford, I don't see much on the Hawks bench that I like. Zaza Pachulia can come in and log meaningful minutes from time to time, but isn't a consistent bench big man like Anderson Varejao (in Cleveland). They have a promising rookie in Jeff Teague, but he doesn't usually log heavy minutes. Mo Evans can fill it up from time to time, but like Zaza, isn't 100% consistent. That being said, Crawford has the ability to come in and drop 50 on us if we're not careful, so to say the Hawks bench isn't dangerous would be a bold faced lie.
I still believe that we have the edge with Goran, Dudley, and Frye coming off the bench. If these guys are playing well and feeling it, this game should be well within our reach of winning. As I said before, it all boils down to who decides they want to show up and play.
Keys to the Game
- Keep Josh Smith from getting hot. When he's hot, it's very hard to stop him. He's one of the toughest competitors in the league. But if he's taken out of the game early, he's shown that historically, he has the tendency to check out of the game.
- Get Nash involved early. Let the man do his thing and work hard to finish the looks he creates.
- Come out hungry to play. If we come out and play like we did against Portland, we don't deserve to win. There's no reason we should have any lack of effort, given our position in the playoff race.
- Gentry said earlier after shootaround that the team will have to work just to make the playoffs. He also added a gem about wanting to get the 7th seed or higher, because the 8th seed basically guarantees them a nice weekend in LA, then sending them packing. (Or something to that effect)
- Make reference to Mike Woodson's shaved eyebrows. Maybe he'll get embarrassed and forget how to adequately coach his team. Maybe? No? Okay. Was worth a shot.
The Suns need this win. No, it's not a "must win". It's more of a "would be nice to win". With the playoff picture so jumbled out here in the WIld, Wild West (sorry...had to give in to stereotypes for a second), we can't afford to lose too many games. I think a win against a solid Hawks team would do a lot for this Phoenix Suns team that has gone through enough trade rumor drama to hold them off for years.
Audio (From this morning's shootaround)