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Game Preview: Suns try to tame the Grizzlies

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One week after losing big in Memphis, can the Suns turn it around on their home court?

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

What: Phoenix Suns (1-7) host the Memphis Grizzlies (5-2)

When: 6:00 p.m. AZ Time (early start!)

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, AZ

TV: Fox Sports Arizona

Radio: 98.7 FM


The Grizzlies are on a good roll to start the new season, and that’s because Mike Conley is back and leading the charge as the Grizz have jumped out to a 5-2 record, with a pair of those wins coming over Utah. Their other wins are over Atlanta, Washington and your hometown Suns.

The Suns, meanwhile, are wallowing. Or, is it disintegrating? Let’s stick with wallowing. But now that Devin Booker and, yes, even Isaiah Canaan are back, the Suns are at least able to compete with other teams.

Last time

Just last week, the Suns lost big to the Grizzlies in Memphis. The Grizz won by 21 points after being up 25 at halftime, behind strong performances from their stars, Conley and Marc Gasol.

The Suns got blasted without Devin Booker (hamstring), getting their only respectable performances from rookie Deandre Ayton (14/4/2 in the first half) and Isaiah Canaan (7/3/4 in the first half) when the game was in the balance. Everyone else was bad.

The Suns bench was especially embarrassing — each player a net minus-8 to minus-16 in their five to nine minutes of play. Starter Trevor Ariza was bad everywhere, accounting for a minutes-22 in his 19 first-half minutes.

I’m only talking about the first half because the second half didn’t matter.

Another first

Tonight will be the first chance for Deandre Ayton to face an NBA opponent for the second time.

Last week against the Grizzlies, Ayton made 12 of 13 shots from all over the floor for 24 points (no free throws), while Gasol’s team won the game easily. Watch the game tape of how Ayton scored on various post-ups and pick-and-rolls. Ayton scored only a few times directly on Gasol, who’s been one of the league’s best defenders for a decade now.

Quite often, the Suns got Gasol to switch out onto the guard, leaving Ayton against a smaller player on the roll. When left against Gasol, Ayton took and made some nice jumpers.

I’m curious if the Grizzlies will play Ayton any differently tonight, either by design to minimize his easy shot attempts or by need because they have to defend Booker this time, too.

I’m also curious about Ayton’s development. Is he better or worse the second time around against NBA players? Will he grow and evolve, or is it too soon to hope for something like that?

Grizzled leaders

Memphis still revolves around point guard 31-year-old Mike Conley (20.3 points, 6.0 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 1.3 steals) and 34-year-old center Marc Gasol (15.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.3 steals).

After those two, the Grizz are getting good contributions from journeymen Garrett Temple (14 points) and rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. (11.7 points, 4.6 rebounds but 4.4 fouls committed per game), along with backup point guard Shelvin Mack (10.7 and 3.9 off the bench). Jackson is a foul machine, but is productive in his 22 minutes per game.

The Grizzlies play as a team, boasting the league’s fourth-ranked defense and 18th-ranked offense, though they’ve had the second-easiest schedule in the league so far.

Sunshines

Well of course, the Suns revolve around the play of Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, and frankly, when your best players are some of your youngest, then you’re going to have ups and downs on the scoreboard.

Together, they’ve been more up than down so far this season. I realize two-man pairings are a very dirty stat since their net points are dependent on the other three players, but over time, it’s a good barometer of who plays well together and who does not.

The two-man pairing of Booker and Ayton are only a minus-2 in 124 minutes together this season, dramatically better than any other regular two-man pairing. Unfortunately, since Booker has been hurt for almost half the games so far, the Booker-Ayton pairing is only the 7th most common pairing. No other two-man pairing of more than 100 minutes together has come even close to a positive on the scoreboard.

Eclipses

Of course, when your top two-man pairing is still a negative (-2) on the season, then everything else is kind of an eclipse.

Staying with the two-man theme, the Suns worst two-man pairing so far this season is Trevor Ariza and Isaiah Canaan at a crazy minus-64 in 153 minutes together. Next-worst is Ariza with Ryan Anderson at a minus-49 in 135 minutes.

What’s craziest is that those are the other three starters around Booker and Ayton. How is that possible? It’s not like Booker and Ayton play alone. They get many of their minutes WITH those three guys.

The five-man lineup of Canaan-Booker-Ariza-Anderson-Ayton have played only 55 total minutes together in five games this season where they were all active, and collectively are just a minus-9 on the scoreboard. That’s just over 10 of the 48 minutes in a game.

What’s interesting is that the Suns have only FIVE five-man lineups that have played at least 12 minutes together so far, and they all range from a net-zero to a minus-12.

New starting lineup

Lately, Igor Kokoskov has elevated T.J. Warren back into the starting unit as the power forward.

The five-man lineup of Canaan-Booker-Ariza-Warren-Ayton has played 24 minutes together this season for a total net of minus-11 points versus the opponent. Not great, but not awful.

Warren was great off the bench the first six games of the season with 15.2/3.7/1.5 and .514/.478/.889 shooting splits. His 47.8 percent on almost four three-pointers per game was the “Ohhh, he’s progressing!” standout number.

Now in the starting lineup for two games, Warren has surprisingly dropped the three-pointer from his game (down to 3 total attempts in 2 games), though he’s getting to the line a bit more and assisting more.

Taking Warren off the second unit has hurt that group, but Igor can only plug one hole at a time with each move.

Prediction

Evidence shows the Suns are much better when their best players are playing. Go figure. While teams like Toronto can thrive with their bench, the Suns simply cannot. The roster just isn’t deep enough to get too far past the top few players.

Since Booker AND Ayton and all the guys are likely playing, I predict a competitive game that might actually be in the balance in the fourth quarter and... gasp... might end up in the win column.

Suns win, 105-95.