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Preview: Phoenix Suns can pass San Antonio Spurs for 7th place in the West with win tonight

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The scorching Phoenix Suns, winners of 10 of their last 12 games, face a San Antonio Spurs squad which is sputtering without injured Kawhi Leonard. A win would move the Suns above the Spurs into 7th place in the Western Conference.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

  • Phoenix Suns at San Antonio Spurs
  • 6:30PM AZ Time at AT&T Center, San Antonio
  • Television: Fox Sports AZ and NBA League Pass

Last season's Spurs steamrolled the rest of the NBA, winning 62 regular season games, then completing their postseason run by destroying the two-time defending champion Miami Heat 4-1, winning each of the 4 by at least 15 points.

It was the Spurs' first NBA Finals win since 2007, but fifth overall in the Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich era. Popovich is one of the most accomplished head coaches in NBA history. Now in his 19th season as Spurs coach, he holds a 988-458 record. Aside from his first season, when he assumed the job mid-year, and the strike-shortened 98-99 season, Pop's Spurs have won at least 50 games every single season of his coaching career. That's amazing.

For Duncan's part, in his full 17 NBA seasons so far, he's been named to the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams 14 times each, along with two League MVP and three Finals MVP awards. He's 13th all-time in career Player Efficiency Rating (PER), 3rd in career Defensive Rating, and 6th in career Total Win Shares.

The Spurs have been an elite team for a long time, and it sometimes feels like the dynasty will never end.

But dynasties do end. Players get old (Duncan is now 38, Manu Ginobili is 37 and Tony Parker is 32 with high mileage), coaches retire (Popovich will turn 66 this month).

Is the Spurs juggernaut, which started during the Bill Clinton Presidency, finally running out of steam? Was Charles Barkley correct when he said "I think it's over for the Spurs. Them old geezers finally hit the wall" last night on "The NBA on TNT Halftime Report"?

So far this season, the Spurs are literally slowing down, playing at a slower pace and also scoring less efficiently. Last season's Spurs scored 105.4 PPG at a relatively brisk 10th in the league pace and the league's 7th best O-rating. This season, only 102.2 PPG, with 13th O-Rating and 20th pace.

Last season's Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard has managed to play in only 22 games, and the Spurs are 6-8 in the games their young star has missed. With the aging of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, Leonard has become more critical to this team's chances. He's due back from a hand injury within the month, but will definitely miss tonight's game.

Popovich is famous for his occasional benching of star players during the season, but it's inaccurate to think the Spurs are a team which doesn't concern itself too much with regular season wins. At 21-15, they're 7 games behind their win total through 36 games last year. They're a legitimately struggling team.

Last meeting between Suns and Spurs

Markieff Morris and Alex Len each logged double-doubles as the Suns put a rock in the Spurs' Halloween candy bag, winning 94-89. Len showed us all what he'd be capable of this season, and he's delivering on that promise.

The Suns appear to be hitting their stride, especially on the offensive end, where they're up to 4th in the league in PPG with a robust 107.2 average, and are doing so at an efficient 5th in O-Rating. They last scored fewer than 100 on December 20th, and have scored fewer than 90 only twice this season.

This is the way coach Jeff Hornacek envisioned this team: They push the pace and play fast, they score lots of points by penetrations and 3-point shooting, and force opponents to try to keep up. It's a style reminiscent of the Suns team on which Horny played in the late 80s/early 90s under Cotton Fitzsimmons.

The emergence of Len adds a new dimension last season's team was missing, as the Suns can go with small, fast scorers at the other four spots, leaving it up to Len to protect the paint and rebound. 21-year old Len might be the single most important player to the Suns' fortunes this season due to his unique skill set on the roster.

Keys to the game

Pace - As always, the Suns must impose their will. This is even more important tonight, as the Spurs are back to their slow, grinding ways of the past, and their rotation contains six players of age 30 or older.

Len vs. Duncan and Splitter - In their last meeting, Len had a breakout game against the Spurs legend, tallying 10 points and 11 rebounds in 32 minutes of play. And only 2 fouls! As I wrote above, Len will be the key to many more games as the season progresses.

Avoid a slow start - The Suns have started slowly each of their last two games, trailing the Bucks by 5 after the first quarter, and the Timberwolves by 6. They were able to get away with it and pull out wins against weak opponents, but making this a habit will bite them in the butt versus better teams. How about you aggressively take it to the hole and share the ball from the beginning of the game this time, eh, Suns?

No more foolishness of technical fouls - Marcus and Markieff Morris showed that they're twins who truly do everything together when they each drew technical fouls on Wednesday, and the T's have simply become too much, as the esteemed Jim Coughenour noted last week. It's time the Suns start keeping their cool, no matter how much they dislike the officiating.

Projected Starting Lineups

  • PG: Eric Bledsoe vs.Tony Parker
  • SG: Goran Dragic vs. Danny Green
  • SF: P.J. Tucker vs. Marco Belinelli
  • PF: Markieff Morris vs. Tim Duncan
  • C: Alex Len vs. Tiago Splitter

Ray's prediction: Suns 107-103

Join the fun in the game thread here, starting at 6PM AZ time.