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Preview: Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns feel the pain of missing playmakers

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

What: Phoenix Suns (19-50) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (40-30)

When: 7:00pm AZ time

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, AZ

TV: Fox Sport Arizona

Radio: 98.7 FM ArizonaSports

Since losing on a buzzer-beating alley-oop to Jeff Green back when games mattered, the Phoenix Suns have put together two of their most impressive games against the Grizzlies in the past month. The Suns now lead the season series 2-1 against a Memphis Grizzlies team fighting for home court advantage in the playoffs.

You might think the Suns have dealt with a lot of injuries this year, at one point losing all three of their playmakers along with four other players in late January. The Suns have tied a franchise record by playing 23 different guys at some point this season. The injuries completely scuttled the Suns season and now the home team is likely to get rewarded with a top draft pick.

Yet the Grizzlies have put the Suns to shame in that respect. The Memphis Grizzlies have trotted out a whopping 26 different players this season, including the Bakersfield Jam's Xavier Munford. While the Grizzlies fight for playoff position, they are doing so without their best players PG Mike Conley and C Marc Gasol. But that's not all. They are missing almost an entire rotation. Backup point guard Mario Chalmers is out for the season. Backup centers Brandan Wright and Chris Anderson (both injured during Suns games) are out as well. On the wing, backups Jordan Adams and P.J. Hairston are out too.

Add in the trading of small forward Jeff Green and shooting guard Courtney Lee, and you've got a very different Grizzlies team than the one that entered February. But they are still in playoff position. Since losing to the Suns for the second time a couple weeks ago, the Grizz have lost 5 of 8 games but still hold the 5th seed in the playoff picture with a 30-20 record.

Grizzlies playmaking

You think the Suns had it bad? The Grizzlies point guards in Saturday's win over the Clippers were Ray McCallum (14 points, 3 assists in 35 minutes) and Xavier Munford (7 points, 1 assist). Briante Weber had been their point guard for a couple weeks before that, averaging 4 assists per game in 4 games. Mike Conley (achilles) is out for 2-3 more weeks while Mario Chalmers is gone for the season and was released.

McCallum was previously released by both the Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs. Munford played for the Bakersfield Jam all season, and was never called up by the Suns while they were signing guys fellow D-League playmakers Jordan McRae, Orlando Johnson, Lorenzo Brown and Phil Pressey.

Playmaking duties are also handled by power forward Zach Randolph (career high 10 assists) and small foward JaMychal Green (4 assists). Lance Stephenson is also capable of racking up assists as a playmaker on the wing. He had 19 assists in the previous three games before Randolph went nuts on Saturday night.

Jordan Farmar has been signed and is expected to handle some playmaking duties as well.

The Grizzlies can only hope that one of those guys shows dependability to back up Mike Conley come playoff time.

Suns playmaking

We know that Archie Goodwin and Devin Booker took over the playmaking duties after Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Ronnie Price all went down due to injury. This of course spelled even greater disaster for a season already in despair.

But at least we got to see that Devin Booker has playmaking skills we never knew he had. His court vision is quite advanced for an NBA shooting guard, let alone one only 19 years old.

Is he more of a playmaker than Brandon Knight or Eric Bledsoe?

Maybe. But maybe not.

Since Knight's return five games ago, Booker has posted 6.4 assists on only 40 passes per game, while Knight has posted 4.8 assists on 53 passes per game. The passes per game are a function of usage rate as the primary ball handler in the Suns offense. Knight understandably gets more touches per game as the starting point guard. But the Suns offense remains absolutely awful - last in the league - because they have a poor offensive game plan beyond passing the ball around, with 5 players averaging at least 37 passes per game but only producing the league's 28th ranked assist rate.

Back when Knight and Eric Bledsoe dominated the ball (51 and 61 passes per game between them, the only two players to make more than 28 passes per game), the Suns had the league's 19th ranked offense over the first two months of the season. And prior to that, Bledsoe and Dragic ran a top-10 offense as dual playmakers.

What does this mean?

It probably means a few things. Booker may be a better passer than we thought, but he can't carry an offense. Neither can Knight. And neither player is being helped by a popgun roster and rookie coach without a clear offensive scheme.

So we watch the Suns ride out the rest of the season with a mishmash roster and dream of a new playmaking combo next season that might be a top-10 offense once again.

Prediction

The Suns are back to talking tough, and letting everyone know they no intention to tank games from here on out for a couple more ping pong balls.

And they have every right to feel that way. The players themselves are trying to win, and with 5 wins in their past 11 games (yes, that's a good stretch around these here parts), the players are feeling like they can win any game.

Tonight's game against the Grizzlies could go any way.

But I will predict the Grizzlies are desperate enough to bare their claws and show the Suns who the playoff team is.

Grizzlies by 10.