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Preview: Suns try to get season record back to even against the Magic

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The Suns may be without Ricky Rubio tonight which will certainly hurt their chances.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

What: Phoenix Suns @ Orlando Magic

When: 5:00 pm (Phoenix time)

Where: Amway Center

TV: Fox Sports Arizona

Radio: 98.7 FM/1400 AM (Spanish)


Tonight the Suns meet the Magic for the first time this season and will attempt to bring their season record back up to .500 with another win. Hopefully, they can do that without throwing their fans into a collective panic attack as they did in the second half in Charlotte on Monday.

One thing in the Suns’ favor is that Orlando will be playing on the second night of a back-to-back after their 127-120 win over the Washington Wizards last night. Those Wizards were however without starting center Thomas Bryant (stress reaction in his right foot) who scored 23 points, grabbed 9 rebounds and added 5 assists in their win over the Suns last week so don’t read too much into the Orlando win.

The Magic have been playing good defense this season (DRtg - 103.7, 9th) but - to put it politely - have been ‘offensively challenged’ with an ORtg of 102.5 (29th) which is just a fraction of a point ahead of the 4-17 New York Knicks. Their only win against a team that is over .500 this season came against the 76ers on a night that they were playing without Joel Embiid and before 2019 All-Star center Nikola Vucevic was sidelined with an ankle injury.

Even with the Magic’s offensive woes, the Suns will need to step up their effort on defense which has fallen to 17th for the season and 24th overall in their last eight games. As we saw in the second half of the Hornets game on Monday, a lack of defensive intensity can kill you even against a team with a weaker offense (the Hornets’ offense is 22nd).

With the Suns possibly going into this game without any of their centers available (Baynes is definitely out tonight) and PF Frank Kaminsky starting at C again, Vucevic’s absence from the Magic lineup is a small plus for Phoenix.

There is some good news about Cheick Diallo but also some potentially bad news about Ricky Rubio.

UPDATE:


The Magic (9-11)

Probable Starting Lineup: Markelle Fultz, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Khem Birch

Injury report: Nikola Vucevic (ankle) - OUT, Al-Farouq Aminu (knee) - OUT.

Even with Vucevic out, Orlando’s size and athleticism in the frontcourt will be a problem for the Suns - offensively and defensively. Aaron Gordon (6’8”), Jonathan Isaac (6’11”) and Khem Birch (6’9”) with Mo Bamba (7’0”) coming off the bench together average 35.3 points, 23.9 rebounds and 5.2 blocks per game. Vucevic’s averages are 17.1, 11.6 and 1.1 respectively so the Suns are still getting a break with him out.

Their backcourt features veteran shooting guard Evan Fournier and former No. 1 draft pick and current reclamation project Markelle Fultz at the point. Fournier is off to what looks like could be his best season in the NBA scoring 19.2 points, 3.3 assists and 1.1 steals. Fultz still hasn’t quite recovered his offensive mojo but doesn’t hurt the team on O with 11.7 ppg and is a big part of Orlando’s quality defense with an average of 1.3 steals. Backup point guard D.J. Augustin still leads the Magic in assists.

As a team, Orlando has been one of the worst shooting teams in the NBA, 29th in both FG% (42.3%) and 3-point% (31.2%). If the Suns tighten up heir defense enough to make sure the Magic don’t get a lot of easy baskets, this could be the difference in the game.

Team Leaders

Points: Evan Fournier (19.2)

Rebounds: Nikola Vucevic (11.6)

Assists: D.J. Augustin (4.7)


The Suns (9-10)

Probable Starting Lineup: Elie Okobo, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Dario Saric, Frank Kaminsky

Injury report: Aron Baynes (calf strain) - OUT, Ricky Rubio (hand) - questionable, Cheick Diallo (illness) - probable.

With Ricky Rubio questionable for tonight’s game, it throws another uncertainty into the mix. Even though Elie Okobo didn’t play Monday night in Charlotte, I believe he would get the starting nod at point guard. Tyler Johnson is more experienced but has not played well when at the point for the Suns this season and Ty Jerome is just getting his feet wet in NBA play after a long absence due to an ankle injury. Jevon Carter has just been too inconsistent on offense and as a distributor even though his defense has been strong all season. Expect Jerome to get minutes tonight though, maybe many minutes depending on how he performs.

Hopefully, last minute heroics won’t be necessary tonight but they might be if the Suns’ 3-point shooting slump continues. In Charlotte they were 21.4% from three, well off their season average of 36.0%. Jevon Carter was our best 3-pt shooter in Charlotte (2/3, 66.7%) and Mikal Bridges was second (1/3, 33.3%). Everyone else was well below their season averages. There were many attempts (42) but not enough makes (9). The Suns don’t need a stellar three-point shooting night to stay in this game, just an average one. The further they fall below average, the worse their chances become.

One of the Suns weakness - rebounding - also happens to be one of Orlando’s strengths. They have quite a few athletic, bouncy bigs and the Suns, well, the Suns don’t. The Magic are especially good on the offensive boards (10.9 per game, 7th). As Cheick Diallo has rejoined the team, hopefully he will be recovered enough to play which should help the Suns on the boards. Rebounding will still be an issue but just not as big an issue as it would be with him out.

The Suns are averaging 114.4 points per game (7th) and the Magic are averaging only 101.0 per game (29th). The Suns play at the 10th highest pace in the NBA, the Magic at the 28th highest pace. Whichever team controls the tempo of this game will have another advantage.

Team Leaders

Points: Devin Booker (24.4)

Rebounds: Dario Saric (7.2)

Assists: Ricky Rubio (8.2)


Summary

This is a winnable game for the Suns, even if Rubio is out. That will make it a tougher win to get but I still believe it is possible if the Suns shoot well tonight. The Suns have had a day off but the Magic were in Washington last night for their game against the Wizards so the fatigue factor should favor the Suns.

My prediction is that the Suns win 103-98.