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Game Preview: Goran Dragic's Phoenix Suns (15-14) host Rajon Rondo's Dallas Mavericks (20-9)

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Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The last time these two teams met, the Phoenix Suns experienced probably their best win of the season to date by beating the (then) 15-5 Mavericks in Dallas 126-122 to improve to 12-8 on the season. The win was important because the Suns were kicking off a killer road trip, with upcoming games against Houston and the LA Clippers.

The Suns led virtually the whole game and left fans wondering if that win could spark a long streak of goodness. Well, the Mavericks win did spark a long streak but of the bitter variety as the Suns went on to lose six consecutive games after that, punctuated by two buzzer-beating three pointers.

The Suns have since found their footing by sweeping a three-game road trip back east, including a strong win over the 19-7 Washington Wizards on Sunday night and now come home to face the Dallas Mavericks before Christmas.

The Mavericks

Two games ago, the Dallas Mavericks improved their playoff possibilities with the acquisition of Rajon Rondo from the Boston Celtics for a backup big man, a backup point guard and a backup shooting guard. Not a bad exchange.

So far, the Mavericks and Rondo are getting used to each other. Rondo, who generally can't hit a barn door with a slingshot from ten feet away, has been hit-sometimes-but-mostly-miss in the Mavericks five-shooter offensive scheme.

The Mavericks are built to score in bunches, and are nearly the exact opposite of the Houston Rockets in that their biggest weapon is the mid-range shot. As a team, they shoot 47.7% from the field on all shots, but in two games with Rondo they have shot just 43% (Rondo is 9-26 himself). They are 1-1 in those games, with the only win a 99-93 affair over a San Antonio team playing without Ginobili, Parker, Green, Duncan and Splitter.

See their shot chart, according to Statmuse.com

mavericks-shot-chart-pre-rondo

The Mavericks are the kings of the mid-range game, a slap in the face of analytics gurus with a nod to NBA days gone by. Remember, NBA teams in the 80s thrived on mid-range shots and scored more then than teams do now.

It will be interesting to see how long the Mavericks take to gel with Rondo in the lineup. Let's hope that takes at least one more game to be realized.

The Suns

The Suns, meanwhile, have a more 21st-century shot chart predicated on threes, dunks and layups. They are 2nd in the league in three-point attempts per shot attempt, tossing up 3s more often than last year even. Part of that is that opponents are clogging the paint defensively, begging the Suns to beat them from the perimeter. So far, that tactic is working, the Suns are only 17th in overall field goal percentage and 11th in three-point percentage. Not scary.

What's totally fascinating to me is the difference between the Suns shot charts on the road (where they are 9-7, including 7-1 against the lowly East) versus at home (where they are 6-7, including 2-5 against the lowly East).

suns-road-vs-home

It's like two different teams!

On the road, the Suns are much hotter from the three-point line and lean to the right (when facing the basket), but at home they are hotter from mid-range while leaning left on the threes.

What gives? Isn't this the same team with the same players in the same scheme?

A look at individual players' shot charts shows that the bench - Isaiah Thomas, Gerald Green, Marcus Morris, Alex Len - actually shoot better on the road than they do at home, while Bledsoe and Dragic shoot better at home.

Let's look at the Suns shot charts year over year - last year's 48-34 team vs this year's 15-14 team so far.

suns-shot-chart-this-yr-vs-last-year

You'd think with the same coach and 8 of the same rotation players, the Suns would like similar. But they DON'T. This year's team relies a lot more on midrange shots and has switched hot corners.

This switch is inherent in the one main personnel change: Channing Frye vs. Isaiah Thomas. The Suns are taking even more threes and making more shots at the rim this season thanks to Isaiah Thomas' highly efficient scoring model that matches Dragic and Bledsoe's.

But something that has nothing at all to do with Channing/Isaiah is that Marcus Morris has morphed from an analytics dream last year to a mid-range maven this year.

marcus-yr-over-yr

The ink blots haven't changed much, but the darkness has - meaning that he's not scoring from the same places this year as a year ago.

And even more fascinating is Marcus' shot distribution/scoring on the road vs. at home this year.

marcus-road-vs-home

Again, the ink blots haven't changed much but the frequency of scoring is different for Marcus at home vs. on the road, and that's true of many of the players.

Okay, enough with the shot charts. Thanks for indulging me. StatMuse.com is a new service that I've been fortunate enough to get a chance to beta test. They've got a ton more to give - I just like shot charts.

How they compare

suns-mavs-stats

Lineups

suns-mavs-lineups

Prediction

This one's going to be a barn-burner, I think. And hopefully in the Suns' favor. The Suns play up/down to their competition, so they should be quite focused against the Dallas Mavericks who have been tabbed as an NBA Finals contender with Rondo at the helm.

Suns by 2 (on a missed three by Dirk at the buzzer!)

Go Suns!

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