When: 7 p.m. AZ
Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena
Watch: Fox Sports Arizona
Listen: 98.7 FM
Suns - De’Anthony Melton, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, T.J. Warren, Deandre Ayton
76ers - Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Wilson Chandler, Joel Embiid
From Philadelphia’s side of things, I wanted to kick it off with the development path of a younger Joel Embiid. Due to his checkered injury history, Embiid didn’t even play his first NBA game until age 22. Meanwhile, Ayton just turned 20 over the summer. From the get-go, the 76ers decided to play their offense entirely through Embiid as a more traditional back to the basket style like Ayton.
However, as everyone who follows the Suns knows, Devin Booker is the No. 1 option. The thing is, Ayton seems to be someone who fits within the offense. It’s becoming a smooth transition for the former University of Arizona big man alongside a high usage guard like Booker.
Ever since Booker returned to the starting lineup, Ayton’s rookie numbers are eerily reminiscent of an Embiid. It’s wild enough that only Anthony Davis and LeBron James were the other players to join Ayton as players averaging at least 22 points and 13 rebounds over the final two weeks of 2018.
The Suns’ No. 1 pick seems to have turned a corner, especially when factoring in his 24-point second-quarter explosion versus Nikola Jokic a few days ago, so a motivated Embiid will truly be a litmus test for Ayton.
The biggest question for Philadelphia now is whether Jimmy Butler truly makes them a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference during the next 3-4 years. Once Butler re-signs for a max extension this summer, they are locking in the Butler/Embiid duo. Ben Simmons will be a restricted free agent in 2020, which really foreshadows next season be critical to his development and fit alongside those two. If Kawhi Leonard re-signs in Toronto, Kevin Durant joins the Knicks, and everyone stays in Boston or they get Anthony Davis, then Philadelphia is right back where they started.
It’s quite possible if all those dominoes drop in July, which is actually a realistic possibility, I wouldn’t be surprised if Philadelphia shopped Simmons in 2019 or 2020 to get whatever they need, even a more role-fitting side star who can shoot, it could help improve their long-term sustainability as a Finals contender with a loaded East.
Landry Shamet is the unknown x-factor tonight for Philly, but you shouldn’t be unfamiliar with him for long. He’s been an absolute marksman from deep, plus he fits beautifully within Brett Brown’s offense. Shamet played 21 minutes last time against Phoenix and did well for himself. If the Suns can’t contain Shamet, they’re in for a long night.
Is it possible we see even more of the Point Book lineup against Philly than their last outing in December? Booker did wonders slicing and dicing the 76ers’ defense as the jumbo playmaker. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kokoskov started Josh Jackson over De’Anthony Melton for size reasons against Philly’s own jumbo sized point.
Speaking of Booker, he’s been on a tear since his return from a nagging hamstring injury. Booker is averaging 28.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 8 assists, and 1.2 steals while taking close to seven free throws and three-pointers. He’s been James Harden-like, operating almost always on-ball as of late even with Melton in the starting unit, even carrying a 2-to-one AST/TO ratio over this span.
If Booker’s play continues, will it be enough to help attract a star to Phoenix this summer alongside the ever-improving Ayton and maybe even get some lottery luck with Duke’s Zion Williamson? Immediately, that becomes a free agent destination, but Booker is the one who will be bringing the names. These next six months will certainly be interesting to follow from that vantage point.
The addition of Kelly Oubre Jr., who is the Suns’ X-factor tonight, has helped solidify the identity Phoenix is trying to create. Since Oubre joined the team on Dec. 19 in an upset win at Boston, the Suns are second in deflections per game at 19.1. The Indiana Pacers, who currently rank as the No. 1 defense, top them at 19.7.
When you put long, energetic wings together like Bridges, Jackson, Warren, and Oubre, the propensity to disrupt passing lanes immediately spreads. All of them are at the top of the Suns’ leaderboards the past few weeks in deflections alongside Melton. Booker has also gotten in on the action at a career-high rate.
Give credit where credit is due with coach Igor Kokoskov. His system and the players’ fit with one another is helping create a scrappy group that can defend at a high rate while also possessing possibly two top-10 players at their absolute peaks in Booker and Ayton.
The Phoenix Suns always play the Philadelphia 76ers well, and it showed despite Philly winning before they really started to click together. Will we see even more of the Point Book lineup, sans Trevor Ariza for Josh Jackson and Mikal Bridges, that tortured Philadelphia? I actually do, which means this game will be competitive throughout.
Also, how will an improved Ayton fare versus Embiid? The last time they matched up, Embiid did whatever he wanted against Ayton and Richaun Holmes. The tables might have turned over the past few months, though. Ayton has improved rapidly, while Embiid will be playing the second night of a back-to-back after returning from a lower back strain. Maybe it’s more of an equal head-to-head battle than many expect, but we’ll find out that answer very quickly after the opening tip.
When I predicted the Suns’ seven-game homestead on Locked On Suns last week, I went ambitious with a 4-3 finish. So far, they are 0-3 so I have to think this improved team is due a surprise victory. If Bridges can corral Simmons, and Ayton wins his matchup versus Embiid, then Booker going off would be the icing on the cake.
Surprise, the Suns beat Philadelphia, reaching 10 wins first before 30 losses.
Suns 119, 76ers 116