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Preview: Suns attempt to fend off Hornets

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Are we in for another thriller between these two teams tonight?

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Charlotte Hornets Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

What: Phoenix Suns host the Charlotte Hornets

When: 7:00 p.m. AZ

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena

Watch: Fox Sports Arizona

Listen: 98.7 FM


Probable Starters:

Suns - Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Dario Saric, Aron Baynes

Hornets - Devonte’ Graham, Terry Rozier, Miles Bridges, PJ Washington, Bismack Biyombo


Hornets

OffRtg = 106.3 (22nd), DefRtg = 113.1 (28th), NetRtg = minus-6.8 (26th)

Somehow, someway, the Charlotte Hornets have a 15-26 record heading into tonight’s tilt with the Suns. Many, including myself, thought Charlotte was destined for 15 total wins once Kemba Walker left via sign-and-trade.

The talent there was so barren, and expecting Rozier to step into Walker’s role was an awful idea. However, the true story of why the Hornets actually look to be steadily improving instead of outright tanking is due to Devonte’ Graham. Taken one pick after Elie Okobo in the 2018 draft atop the second round, Graham is averaging 18.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 7.7 assists while shooting 38.4 percent on three-pointers.

There’s serious doubts he makes it, but credit to Graham for becoming a fringe Eastern Conference All-Star contender while willing Charlotte to wins they shouldn’t be producing this early on in their rebuild.

Charlotte’s big ticket addition was supposed to be Rozier, but Graham has proven to already be more valuable. The former Boston Celtics guard was being seriously pursued by the Suns via trade before the 2018-19 season, then in July before the Walker sign-and-trade occurred. Rozier is averaging 18.4 points, 4.4 assists, and 1.2 steals per game on 42.7/39.4/84.3 shooting splits.

Rozier has operated more as an off-ball piece for Charlotte compared to a high-volume ball dominator. When examining the fit, Phoenix definitely dodged a bullet because this part of the season would’ve resulted in an over reliance on Booker as the pseudo point guard. Rubio does the polar opposite of what Rozier does, which is spread the wealth around setting his teammates up on a frequent basis.

Charlotte looks to be another two or three years away from seriously competing, and they will need all the help they can get it via lottery luck. The Hornets will never be a free agent destination, so this will be a very long rebuild attempt, or it will be stuck with Graham as its primary piece for years to come.

Suns

OffRtg = 109.9 (11th), DefRtg = 110.8 (19th), NetRtg = minus-0.9 (T15th)

So far in 2020, Devin Booker is looking like an All-Star. No ifs, ands, or buts about it either. Booker is averaging 33.6 points and 6.4 assists per game in January while carrying 53.8/37/95.7 shooting splits. Booker has settled in as the engine of the Suns’ offense after a few month adjustment to Monty Williams’ new system, which is the fifth already he has needed to learn during his tenure with the Suns.

Booker continues taking the next steps forward in his development, and the most important one for 2019-20 was his defensive effort along with increasing efficiency. Even though the first point is inconsistent, which is still better than nothing, Booker’s overall bump in advanced metrics speaks to how he can operate with competent teammates around.

The Suns’ superstar is starting to get the national attention he’s deserved for awhile now as a possible All-Star, but what about his sidekick in the Valley? Kelly Oubre Jr. has continuously stepped up for Booker and Co. maintaining his impressive numbers after the mid-season trade with Washington last season. Over his last 10 games, Oubre Jr. is averaging 20.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.5 steals while shooting 40.3 percent on threes.

Whether it’s in a 1B role or third priority, Oubre is proving over and over why he’s setting himself up to be a long-term piece of the Suns past when his contract extension ends in 2021. As a valuable two-way wing who can stuff the stat sheet on both ends, Oubre is a player a team can win games with consistently. The question moving forward for Oubre and the Suns will be how much his new deal will cost, because he’s going to be a player who earns over $20 million per year at this rate.

Finally, for those wondering what’s going to come next with the Suns’ starting lineup, which was once again tweaked after the Deandre Ayton / Aron Baynes experiment didn’t go as planned, what 5-man unit actually works the best? No surprise, but inserting Mikal Bridges and Ayton over Dario Saric and Baynes does the trick.

In 33 minutes this season, the 5-man lineup featuring Rubio, Booker, Oubre, Bridges, and Ayton is outscoring opponents by 39.1 points per 100 possessions (OffRtg = 130.3, DefRtg = 91.1). Small-ball lineups are where the Suns are achieving their best success recently. Allowing Ayton to anchor as a switchable big, plus Oubre and Bridges creating havoc with their length, leads to mightily improved defensive effort.

Hopefully sometime this season, Williams will pull the trigger on starting these five together. 2020 is an important year to find out many things about this roster long-term. One of the biggest revolves around whether Oubre and Bridges can coexist and play small next to Ayton routinely. So far in a small sample size, they are proving this can be a true starting unit moving forward.

Prediction

This qualifies as a must-win game for the Suns when you realize the opponent and it also being at Talking Stick Resort Arena. When you’re a team in the fight for a playoff spot, these are the types of outings you need to win 10/10 times.

After almost blowing a 21-point lead earlier this week, I’m going to say Phoenix holds off Charlotte to add another W to the win column.

These next three games are so important for the Suns. If they can upend Charlotte, then go on the road and defeat Atlanta and New York, then four straight victories could push Phoenix up into the lead for the No. 8 seed.

Suns 109, Hornets 104