Time: 8:30 pm (Phoenix time)
TV: Fox Sports Arizona, NBA TV
Radio: 98.7 FM
Welcome to another late-game installment of Holidays with Deadpoolio! For those looking for something to celebrate, today just so happens to be Abraham Lincoln’s 209th birthday, but I gotta say, he doesn’t look a day over…well, okay, 209 sounds about right. To celebrate properly, try to pay for everything today using pennies. On the Suns, Tyson Chandler is so excited for Lincoln‘s birthday that he even grew his beard out.
The Phoenix Suns (18-39) close out their pre-All-Star Game slate with a two-game road trip that begins tonight against the Golden State Warriors (43-13).
The Warriors enter this game with possession of the NBA’s best record by a half game over the Houston Rockets. They have won two straight by comfortable margins, most recently knocking off the San Antonio Spurs 122-105. However, they are just 3-3 over their last six games as they try to maintain interest until the postseason.
Golden State wields one of the most formidable starting units the NBA has seen. Stephen Curry ranks third in the league in scoring at 26.9 points per game and shoots 41.7 percent from 3 on a ridiculous 10 attempts per contest. Even more ridiculous, this will be the third consecutive season he’s shot above 40 percent from 3 while averaging at least 10 attempts — he’s already the only player to ever do that in one season, let alone multiple. Kevin Durant comes in a hair behind Curry in the scoring department, ranking seventh in the league at 25.7 points per game. But Durant has rounded his game since coming to the Warriors and is now a good defender. He ranks fourth in the NBA for blocks (1.9 per game) and holds his matchup to 3.8 percentage points below their usual field goal percentage on a nightly basis. Golden State’s third 20-point scorer is Klay Thompson, averaging 20.1 points per game. Often overlooked, Thompson is third in the NBA for 3-point percentage at 45.4 percent — a career high — and still plays hard-nosed defense against his team’s toughest backcourt matchups. Draymond Green is the Swiss Army knife for the defending NBA champions, but he isn’t expected to play tonight due to a finger injury. Beyond those four key players, the Warriors are stocked with useful role players like David West, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Nick Young, Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, Omri Casspi, and Patrick McCaw who can all provide a needed boost on any given night.
Much is made of the Warriors offensive potency, but what makes them so dangerous and distinguishes them from a team like the Rockets is their defensive ability. They rank sixth in defensive rating (103.9), are third in opponent field goal percentage (44.2 percent), and lead the NBA in blocks at 7.8 per game. It’s not all roses for the Warriors, though. They rank 26th in opponent points off turnovers (18.5) and 27th in opponent second chance points (13.8), opponent fastbreak points (14.0), and opponent points in the paint (47.6).
Points: Stephen Curry (26.9)
Rebounds: Draymond Green (7.9)
Assists: Draymond Green (7.3)
The Suns have the look of a team in desperate need of an extended break, having lost 10 of their last 11 and five straight. A loss tonight would give the Suns their longest losing streak of the season. They already sit in a tie with the Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks for the second-worst record in the NBA.
The arrival of Elfrid Payton seemed to jolt Phoenix into a lifelike state after the soul-shattering 48-point defeat meted out by the Spurs on Feb. 7. He dished nine assists in the Suns’ eventual loss to the Denver Nuggets, and even though it came against a team that doesn’t much care for defense, Payton looked suited to his role with his new team. Even more encouraging was the play of Dragan Bender. He had a career-high 23 points as Phoenix’s starting center and has begun to establish that his recent stretch of aggressive play is no fluke. Bender has struggled to be assertive offensively due to his team-first mentality, but it certainly appears somebody got in his ear that his passive, one-dimensional play was doing his team more harm than good. The evolution of Bender as a player has just opened up to boundless new opportunities for growth — so long as he doesn’t forget the lessons this stretch of games has taught him.
Points: Devin Booker (24.1)
Rebounds: Tyson Chandler (9.6)
Assists: Elfrid Payton (9.0)
Devin Booker (Suns): left hip pointer (QUESTIONABLE)
Tyson Chandler (Suns): sore neck (PROBABLE)
Brandon Knight (Suns): torn left ACL (OUT)
Tyler Ulis (Suns): back spasms (QUESTIONABLE)
Alan Williams (Suns): torn right meniscus (OUT)
Jordan Bell (Warriors): left ankle inflammation (OUT)
Draymond Green (Warriors): sprained left index finger (DOUBTFUL)
This is the first of four meetings between the Suns and Warriors. Phoenix is currently riding an 11-game losing streak against Golden State and has won just three of the last 22 meetings. If the Suns hope to get off the schneid against this team, they will have to be in top form. Booker’s health status is still up in the air, so T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson will need to be ready once again to do some heavy lifting on the offensive end, and strong contributions from Bender, Payton, Marquese Chriss, and Troy Daniels will go a long way as well. But the disappointing thing is that the Suns can do everything right on their end and still fall to this juggernaut. Basically, the Suns need to avoid beating themselves and then hope the Warriors phone the game in tonight with the All-Star break just over the horizon. That’s just reality.
Dragan Bender vs. Kevin Durant
The new-and-improved Dragan Bender will face his toughest test yet in the form of former MVP and future Hall of Famer Kevin Durant. The two have almost identical builds, so Bender will not be able to rely on either a size or quickness advantage in this matchup, forcing him to push his basketball skill to its limit. Durant’s prowess on offense and newfound appreciation for defense will present the most telling challenge Bender can face. The question then will be whether he retreats back into his shell or continues to display the confidence in his abilities that has won him an increased role over the past couple weeks. The answer to that question will be one of tonight’s most compelling storylines.
Deadpoolio’s Neat-o Stat of the Game Preview (brought to you by basketball-reference.com)
If you don’t believe Dragan Bender has been more aggressive lately, here’s some evidence. Over his last seven games, Bender has had two streaks of three games apiece where he took at least half of his shots inside the 3-point arc. He had three such streaks over his first 93 NBA games.