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Polar opposites collide as red-hot Utah Jazz face red dwarf Phoenix Suns

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Phoenix has lost 21 of its last 23 games; Utah has won 19 of its last 21

NBA: Utah Jazz at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Phoenix Suns at Utah Jazz

Time: 6 pm (Phoenix time)

TV: Fox Sports Arizona

Radio: 98.7 FM


Holidays with Deadpoolio is back, just in time for the Ides of March. If you’re a Roman, remember to finish settling all your debts. Also, if any Roman rulers happen to be reading this, perhaps heed the soothsayer’s warning and stay home from the Senate. She didn’t give you a heads up for her own health. Maybe binge Game of Thrones instead.

With just six road games and 13 total games remaining in the season, the Phoenix Suns (19-50) travel to Utah to face the blazing-hot Jazz (38-30) for the final time.

Jazz Update

After winning 11 straight games going into the All-Star break, the Jazz are back on a streak, taking seven in a row and 19 of their last 21. They most recently drilled the Detroit Pistons 110-79 on Tuesday and presently sit in the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference playoff picture — a place few predicted they’d be when the season began.

A return to health for Rudy Gobert has played a big role in Utah’s run. Having him patrolling the middle again has allowed the defense to lock in, as only four teams over the Jazz’s past 21 games have managed to break the century mark, and four of their opponents in the month of March have failed to even score 85 points. The 90.5 points per game Utah has allowed since the break is best in the NBA over that span by a wide margin. If he were eligible, Gobert’s 2.3 blocks per game would rank second in the league, and the myriad other shots his mere presence changes makes for a long night for drive-happy teams. Add in solid defenders like Derrick Favors down low and Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, and Jae Crowder along the perimeter, and this Jazz team is proving adept at winning on defense alone. But with Mitchell, who has taken the last three Western Conference Rookie of the Month awards, spearheading the offensive attack and Rubio proving to be a surprisingly capable scorer this year (three of his four career 30-point games have come with the Jazz), they can put points up when necessary.

One of the best indicators of team success, though, is chemistry in the locker room, and this Jazz team seems to have it in spades. Shortly after arriving from Cleveland in February, Crowder noted the environment he was stepping into. He told the Salt Lake Tribune, “It’s just fun to be out there with a good group of guys that are so connected. They’re just very connected and they’ve welcomed me since Day One. I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Of particular note to Crowder was an instance where Gobert was set to check in for Favors but sat back down after seeing Favors playing well at center and wishing for his teammate to continue his roll. That type of team-first attitude is why the Jazz have managed to exceed all expectations and position themselves for a postseason birth.

Team Leaders

Points: Donovan Mitchell (19.7)

Rebounds: Rudy Gobert (10.6)

Assists: Ricky Rubio (5.4)

Suns Update

The Suns were the first team in the NBA to reach the 50-loss mark after falling 129-107 at home on Tuesday to the struggling Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s the 10th time in history a Suns team has had at least 50 losses in a season, and this version could potentially join the expansion Suns as the only ones to end a season with 60 losses.

Where the Jazz have been exceptional defensively since the break, the Suns have been lousy. They are allowing a league-worst 118.9 points per game, and now that interim head coach Jay Triano has entered full-fledged experimental mode, that probably won’t change. Tyson Chandler did not play and Alex Len saw just 4:45 of court time against Cleveland as Triano went with Dragan Bender as his starting center and small lineups throughout in an attempt to capture some of that magic from Saturday’s 4th quarter against the Charlotte Hornets. It was less than successful, but with nothing left to play for but pride, the mixing and matching will likely continue.

One positive note is the signing of rookie guard Shaquille Harrison to a multi-year contract on Tuesday. Not only does he bring a defensive intensity that this team sorely missed before his addition, he will also push to the limits the minimum number of games necessary to win the Dan Majerle Hustle Award.

Alan Williams has been practicing with the team and is nearing a return to the court, but his season debut will likely happen against the Golden State Warriors on Saturday at the earliest, as he did not make the trip to Utah according to azcentral.com’s Scott Bordow.

Team Leaders

Points: Devin Booker (25.2)

Rebounds: Tyson Chandler (9.1)

Assists: Elfrid Payton (7.1)

Injury Report

Brandon Knight (Suns): torn left ACL (OUT)

Alan Williams (Suns): torn right meniscus (OUT)

Tony Bradley (Jazz): concussion (OUT)

Raul Neto (Jazz): fractured left wrist (OUT)

Thabo Sefolosha (Jazz): torn right MCL (OUT)

Game Preview

After Phoenix won the first meeting between these two teams, Utah has taken the next two. These teams meet tonight for the final time this season, with the Jazz presently rampaging through the NBA and looking as unstoppable at that big boulder from Indiana Jones. Can Phoenix evade a gruesome fate the way Indy managed? Well, the Jazz are holding opponents to league lows from both the field (40.9 percent) and the 3-point arc (29.2 percent) since the All-Star break. Meanwhile, the Suns just shot 38.8 percent from the field and six of 32 from 3 against one of the league’s worst defenses and had Booker suffer a jammed hand in practice yesterday, as per Bordow. So…maybe? Utah is also expecting to have Dante Exum back in uniform for the first time since he injured his shoulder in a collision with Phoenix’s T.J. Warren during the preseason. He probably won’t be the difference maker, but at this point, who would be surprised if he was?

Key Matchup

Dragan Bender vs. Rudy Gobert

Rudy Gobert has been a monster inside for the Jazz in March, averaging 18.7 points, 13.9 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks while shooting 65.8 percent from the field. So, naturally, the Suns will likely stick their lithest big man on him for extended stretches. Dragan Bender runs hot and cold more often than a water heater on the fritz, but when he engages, he provides a dimension the Suns lack — a big who can draw opposing bigs away from the basket. It reeks of desperation when the team also has capable interior defenders Tyson Chandler and Alex Len available, but trying to unlock the secret to Good Dragan has likely taken precedence over sensible matchups at this point. In that case, Bender will need to dig down deep when placed at center and understand that, as a team-first player, he hurts his team when he’s not aggressive. If he can’t make Gobert move away from the basket on defense, he will not have done his job.

Deadpoolio’s Neat-o Stat of the Game Preview (brought to you by basketball-reference.com)

The Suns have scored 97 points against the Jazz in all three meetings this season.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com and basketball-reference.com.