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Preview: Suns try to maintain winning defense versus Pacers as Devin Booker returns

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How will the Suns fare in Indianapolis tonight?

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

What: Phoenix Suns visit the Indiana Pacers

When: 5:00 p.m. AZ

Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse

Watch: Fox Sports Arizona

Listen: 98.7 FM


Probable starters:

Suns - De’Anthony Melton, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, T.J. Warren, Deandre Ayton

Pacers - Darren Collison, Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Myles Turner

Suns

OffRtg - 104.2 (28th), DefRtg - 112.0 (28th), NetRtg = minus-7.8 (27th)

Booker is back, everybody. That changes a ton for the Suns, who have struggled to score effectively and consistently without their star. Even though Phoenix had the No. 2 defensive rating over the past three games sans Booker, they ranked 27th in offensive rating, scoring only 103 points per 100 possessions. If the Suns can strike a balance of keeping their competitive defense going while integrating Booker’s elite scoring back in, they could look like an average team over the final half of this season.

Speaking of that improved defense, the Suns have had four players in the NBA’s top 35 players for deflections which speaks volumes to what identity they are trying to form. Phoenix is nearly doubling up teams since Kelly Oubre Jr.’s arrival in terms of games where they have 20 or more deflections with eight.

Think about it: Phoenix has at least five capable defenders on the roster — Bridges, Melton, Oubre Jr., Jackson, and Holmes — and all of them are young, fitting perfectly into the Suns’ timeline. The Suns can continue to build upon this identity this offseason, if they get lucky with landing Zion Williamson in the lottery or swinging their draft pick to acquire an ideal point guard fit (hello, Jrue Holiday or Mike Conley?).

If I had to pick one X-factor for Phoenix tonight, especially with Booker’s return, I’ll say Melton. How he reacts to Booker being back will be interesting, because his defensive chops and plus-40 percent catch-and-shoot three conversion rate show he’s an ideal fit at that position. I’ll continue to say Melton is the next Patrick Beverley — a pitbull-like defender with All-Defense upside who is capable of hitting an open jumper — so I’m looking forward to seeing how he’s further developed by head coach Igor Kokoskov and his staff.

Pacers

OffRtg - 109.3 (15th), DefRtg - 104.1 (2nd), NetRtg = plus-5.2 (T4th)

No surprise, but the Pacers’ hopes and dreams ride on the shoulders of Oladipo. Since Oladipo’s return from a knee injury, though, it’s been proven this team will need another co-star alongside him eventually. Over the past 15 games, Oladipo is averaging 18.1 points, 5 rebounds, 5.7 assists, and 1.8 steals while carrying 43.6/34.9/74.6 shooting splits. Not as much production scoring-wise, but the Pacers’ 26-year-old star has had to handle way more playmaking duties this season. Like Booker in Phoenix, Oladipo is beginning to be more utilized on-ball while the point guard floats over to the corner for spacing. They’re letting the former Indiana Hoosier decide things on his own offensively, which is still awesome to watch as he develops.

If I were to suggest a move for Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard, it would be making point guard their No. 1 priority this offseason. Oladipo needs help, which sounds familiar to us here in Phoenix.

Hot take coming in here, but I believe Domantas Sabonis will be the better all-around player than Myles Turner soon. Sabonis has transformed into an absolute brute down low who has an effortless scoring touch. Not only that, but he can play great defense as well. In only 25.5 minutes per game, Sabonis is averaging 15.2 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 3 assists while shooting 62.2 percent from the field. That’s unreal production in limited time. For Indiana to win tonight, I imagine Sabonis will play a huge factor. He’s the rare player, like Steven Adams, who can go toe-to-toe with Ayton physically and could possibly have his way against Richaun Holmes.

The Pacers tend to play down to their competition if they start off slow on some nights. Indiana even lost to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers at home earlier this season, so it’s quite possible Phoenix could keep this competitive throughout.

Prediction

For some reason, I feel this game is going to be close. Usually when I say that, though, they aren’t, one way or another.

Booker and Oladipo should be a really fun scoring battle to follow along with, but the bigs will decide tonight’s game. How will Ayton do versus Turner and Sabonis? For the Suns to win, Ayton will need to show up and play consistently.

Indiana’s elite defense puts the clamps down late as the Pacers squeak by Phoenix.

Pacers 113, Suns 107