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Preview: Surging Spurs square off against sliding Suns

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Over the past week, San Antonio and Phoenix have gone in different directions. Will that trend continue?

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

What: Phoenix Suns host the San Antonio Spurs

When: 7:30 PM PT

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena

Watch: ESPN

Listen: 98.7 FM


Probable starters:

Spurs - Bryn Forbes, DeMar DeRozan, Dante Cunningham, Rudy Gay, LaMarcus Aldridge

Suns - Elie Okobo, Josh Jackson, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Deandre Ayton

Injury report - Devin Booker (hamstring - out), Josh Jackson (toe - probable), Isaiah Canaan (ankle - out); Dejounte Murray (knee - out), Derrick White (knee - out), Lonnie Walker IV (knee - out)

Spurs

OffRtg = 111.1 (9th), DefRtg = 114.5 (27th), NetRtg = -3.5 (19th)

This past offseason was the first time drama and turmoil hit the Spurs organization. Names like David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili we’re never malcontents, but Kawhi Leonard turned into one following the mishandling of his quad injury.

After only playing 9 games with intense back-and-forth from both camps, Leonard requested a trade while refusing a super-max extension. Not only did the money not matter to Leonard, but he seemed desperate to get out of San Antonio, especially to get away from head coach Gregg Popovich.

In the end, Leonard was dealt in July to the Toronto Raptors for a package centered around DeMar DeRozan. It was a controversial decision from Toronto’s side, but it was what had to be done in order to make it happen. Instead of rebuilding under Popovich, San Antonio is seemingly trying to push once more for playoff contention until he retires.

The Spurs’ hopes were slightly dashed when Murray tore his ACL during preseason, but it means an even bigger scoring and playmaking role for DeRozan on his new team. Through six games, DeRozan is averaging 28.3 points, 6 rebounds and 8 assists while shooting 49.3% from the floor. The only other player averaging at least 28-6-8 this season is James Harden, so DeRozan is definitely playing like an All-NBA talent.

Forming an intriguing inside-out combo alongside DeRozan is LaMarcus Aldridge. And for the Spurs to cruise to an easy win over the Suns, Aldridge will need to handle himself on both ends against Deandre Ayton. Much like Ayton, Aldridge can stretch the floor as a potent scorer from mid-range.

However, the true x-factor for San Antonio is actually Rudy Gay. The former UCONN Husky is scorching hot from beyond the arc thus far, hitting 8/12 three-pointers. Gay has transitioned easily into being a stretch-4 within Popovich’s scheme, balancing out spacing for mid-range wizards like DeRozan and Aldridge. Ryan Anderson will have his hands full against Gay, so this could be a game where he’s relegated to the bench early unless he is hitting 3s himself.

The Suns’ schedule doesn’t get any easier after their Halloween night tilt versus San Antonio, but Popovich’s crew is continuing to prove you should never doubt them. Even with an entirely new roster, San Antonio is still churning along at high efficiency.

Suns

OffRtg = 103.8 (25th), DefRtg = 115.3 (28th), NetRtg = -11.6 (30th)

Much like last year, Phoenix is starting to get hit with the injury bug early. Not only will Booker not play, but Canaan and Jackson might not go either, forcing rookies like Okobo and Bridges into way more playing time. And if the Suns want to upend San Antonio, they will need their rookies outside of Ayton to consistently step up.

Speaking of Ayton, let’s put his start into perspective. Currently, Ayton is averaging 17.5 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists. The last rookie center to average that was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, so Ayton’s on pace to add himself to various record books if he keeps this up. Ayton showed on Saturday in Memphis that he can handle way more touches as a primary scoring option, and expect more of the same until Booker returns from his hamstring strain.

Ayton handled himself well against Marc Gasol, but struggled mightily versus Nikola Jokic earlier this season. How the Suns’ first No. 1 pick in franchise history fares going one-on-one with Aldridge will likely decide their fate for tonight’s game. If Ayton is able to put up monster numbers — trust me, I think he needs a huge game — Phoenix will be able to keep it close. If not, it could quickly turn into a long night.

Following the Suns’ impressive opener, the shooters have gone cold all around Ayton while the defensive effort has been severely lacking. Signed to be their best three-point marksmen, Ariza and Anderson are two of the worst on the roster over their 5-game losing streak. It’s hard to win games when you shoot over 30 three-pointers per game, but barely eclipse 30% often.

San Antonio is a tough task for Phoenix, and I think they will need two others to step up outside of Ayton to pull off the upset. My two x-factors are actually rookies themselves with Okobo and Bridges. Both could be in line to start, and they have shown over the past few games they need way more minutes then they are currently receiving.

Personally, if Okobo once again has a strong outing, I don’t see how he loses the starting job back to Canaan. It’s easy to notice that Okobo has a better grasp of the offense while having more natural facilitating ability. His pick-and-roll chemistry with Ayton already showed through in Oklahoma City on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Bridges has led the Suns in plus-minus during four of his five appearances this season outside of his 11 seconds logged on Oct. 17. Bridges’ two-way impact has been apparent, especially with his 7’2” wingspan that has forced multiple deflections and turnovers in limited minutes.

I could easily see both as starters alongside Booker and Ayton before this season is over, and Wednesday’s matchup against San Antonio with extra minutes available will go a long way towards proving if that’s the case.

No surprise, but the rookies currently in head coach Igor Kokoskov’s rotation need to leave their mark in order for Phoenix to secure their second victory this season on ESPN.

Prediction

With Booker out of tonight’s game, I expect more of the same out of the Suns. Sure, San Antonio’s defense is right on par with Phoenix, but they have two former All-Stars in DeRozan and Aldridge on their roster. Outside of Ayton having a historic performance tonight as the primary scoring option, the Spurs should cruise to a double-digit victory.

Okobo and Bridges will have solid nights. I’ll even say Okobo flirts with a triple-double while Bridges shows off his 3-and-D skills logging around 25 minutes.

Halloween ends with the Suns falling to 1-6, tied for the worst record in the NBA one month through the regular season.

Spurs 119, Suns 108