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Preview: Suns face off against the playoff-bound Rockets in Houston

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Can the Suns pull off another improbable win against one of the NBA’s best?

NBA: Houston Rockets at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Game: Phoenix Suns @ Houston Rockets

The Time: 5:00 p.m. AZ time

The Place: Toyota Center

TV: Fox Sports Arizona

Radio: 98.7 FM/1400 AM (Spanish)


A few weeks ago, I would have called this game a definite loss for the Suns but not now. The odds are certainly against them but they’ve started to show a resiliency that wasn’t there before which has led to some big wins lately.

A win tonight would be just that, a big win.

I’m not expecting a win tonight but I wouldn’t rule one out either. Houston is a tough team with a high powered offense that no one can stop. Slowing them down - especially MVP candidate James Harden - is the key to winning against Houston. That and scoring lots of points yourself.

The Suns have proven that they are capable of playing good defense and scoring a lot of points but don’t do either consistently yet. In the last meeting between the two teams, Harden torched the Suns for 44 points on the way to a 118-110 win for the Rockets.

Long ago eliminated from playoff contention, the Suns will be playing for pride. The Rockets, however, are still jockeying for playoff position so it’s highly doubtful that they will take this game lightly.

The Rockets (42-26)

Stats: ORtg - 114.2 (2nd), DRtg - 111.4 (22nd), NetRtg - plus-2.8 (11th)

Probable Starting Lineup: Chris Paul, James Harden, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela

Injury report: Isaiah Hartenstein (Achilles) - game time decision, Terrence Jones (illness) - game time decision.

James Harden leads the NBA in scoring with 36.0 points per game. He’s also 8th in assists with 7.5 per game, 2nd in steals with 2.2 per game and leads the league in three pointers made this season (305).

His backcourt partner, Chris Paul, is no slouch either. Together they average 51.4 points, 15.6 assists and pull down 11.1 rebounds a game.

On the inside, Clint Capela is averaging 16.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game and is 3rd in the NBA in points in the paint scoring, a defensive weakness of the Suns (dead last giving up 52.8 per game).

Like the Suns, the Rockets are also a weak rebounding team (28th) which could be an important factor in this game. The Rockets aren’t a particularly strong defensive team either (22nd), another factor that could play in the Suns’ favor.

Team Leaders

Points: James Harden (36.0)

Rebounds: Clint Capela (12.5)

Assists: Chris Paul (8.1)

The Suns (16-53)

Stats: ORtg - 104.8 (27th), DRtg - 113.4 (29th), NetRtg - minus-8.6 (29th)

Probable Starting Lineup: Tyler Johnson, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Dragan Bender, Deandre Ayton

Injury report: T.J. Warren (ankle) - out, Tyler Johnson (knee) - game time decision.

Looking at the full season stats, the Suns look completely outmatched by the rockets. But if you look at the stats for their most recent games (the last 8, 5-3 record), their offensive rating was up to 11th, defense up to 19th and net up to 16th. That sort of improvement at least gives a measure of hope going into this game... as do other recent wins against teams that seemed to completely outclass the Suns (Milwaukee and Golden State).

The Suns’ starting five tonight will be very different from that in their previous meeting (Okobo, Booker, Bridges, Jackson, Ayton) but Tyler Johnson could be out tonight with a sore knee which won’t help the Suns’ chances. Expect De’Anthony Melton to move back into the starting lineup if Johnson is unable to play.

The Rockets’ lineup will also be different this time around. Houston started Kenneth Faried at center in that game so this will be Deandre Ayton’s fist time to face Capela. Ayton tends to be tentative in his first matchups with opposing centers which could prove very costly if he holds to form in this game. Lately, the Rockets have been successfully playing a smallish starting lineup (Paul - 6’0”, Gordon - 6’4”, Harden - 6’5”, Tucker - 6’6”, Capela - 6’10”).

Because of this, Igor Kokoskov could consider moving Bender back to the bench and start either Jackson or Bridges in his place. Bender has proved useful in limited minutes against taller, more traditional power forwards but that’s not what the Rockets are going to bring to the table. With Jackson or Bridges on the court, the Suns add another pair of quick, active defensive hands without giving Houston a size advantage inside.

Devin Booker had a rather pedestrian (for him) scoring outing in that previous game (19 points) and the entire team also had one of their none to rare poor three-point shooting nights (28%). If both occur again, it could be another long night for the Suns.

Team Leaders

Points: Devin Booker (25.1)

Rebounds: Deandre Ayton (10.3)

Assists: Devin Booker (6.7)

Summary

The Suns are going to need to be focused and play at their best to have a chance to win this game. I’m expecting them to come into it with a bit of a chip on their collective shoulders after the loss to the Jazz but the Rockets should be a little extra motivated after their recent home loss to the Warriors.

Houston is presently third in the Western Conference playoff race with both Portland and Oklahoma City only a half game behind in the standings. Every win counts for them as they could easily fall out of the top four seeds and miss out on having home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

If the Suns play tough defense, shoot well from downtown and can win or at least keep the rebounding battle even, they have a reasonable chance at winning.

I doubt all of that happens though.

Prediction: Suns lose 124-111.