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Preview: Suns host Spurs for a huge game in the Western Conference playoff race

The Suns have made up ground lately but still need to take care of business against the teams near them in the standings. That starts with the Spurs tonight at home.

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San Antonio Spurs v Phoenix Suns Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images

What: San Antonio Spurs (18-23) at Phoenix Suns (18-24)

When: 7:00 pm. MST

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena

TV: Fox Sports Arizona

Radio: 98.7 FM


As bizarre as this season has been at times (hello, Mexico City game and the Bayton starting lineup) for the Suns, they still have a real opportunity to make the playoffs for the first time in a decade. In order to do so, though, Phoenix needs to finally win some games against their comrades in the Western Conference playoff race.

The Suns have lost clunkers to the Grizzlies and Kings in recent weeks, including at home. In their first home matchup against San Antonio (the Mexico game was technically a home tilt as well), the Suns can move into a tie for ninth in the standings with a win.

Phoenix travels to Texas just four days from now to play this team again in their final meeting of the season. Because they only meet three times, winning the season series will be an important factor in the event of a tie in the standings. The first tiebreaker for the NBA playoffs is winning percentage in games against one another. Having already lost one game to the Spurs, the Suns can’t afford to drop another.

Phoenix Suns

No. 10 in the Western Conference

110.1 ORtg (18th) - 111.2 DRtg (18th) = minus-1.1 netRtg (16th)

Projected starters: Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Dario Saric, Deandre Ayton

The impact of Deandre Ayton on this team has been immense. It’s ironic that just days after Devin Booker memorably implored Aron Baynes to “DIVE!!!” after setting a screen, the Suns’ rightful starting center illustrated perfectly the effect a good roll can have on a team’s offense.

“He gets everyone on the perimeter open shots because of how hard he runs,” said Mikal Bridges, a primary recipient of those open looks, at shootaround on Monday. “People are scared of him.”

Since returning to the starting center position, Ayton has relied far less on his inefficient mid-range jumper and focused on areas where he can have a bigger impact. The second-year big man has dominated the glass, which has helped Phoenix control the possession game, and he’s also made the Suns’ defense far more versatile.

Phoenix’s personnel always appeared to be more geared toward a switch-heavy scheme, though they had to adjust with Dario Saric, Frank Kaminsky and Aron Baynes playing heavy minutes early in the year. Now, they are unleashing that manic energy on opposing offenses more consistently.

Said Bridges of Ayton’s defense: “Ball screens, his coverage, rebounding really well, he switches on the perimeter and he’s making it tough for the offense, just his presence and mindset that he’s been having is unbelievable.”

On the injury front, Kelly Oubre Jr., who is probable, seems very likely to play tonight after clearing concussion protocol and participating fully in shootaround.

San Antonio Spurs

No. 9 in the Western Conference

111.4 ORtg (10th) - 112.3 DRtg (22nd) = minus-0.9 netRtg (15th)

Projected starters: Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, DeMar DeRozan, Trey Lyles, LaMarcus Aldridge

Take the scouting report for San Antonio from former Spurs coach and executive Monty Williams: “DeRozan and LaMarcus are just really good, and Patty (Mills) is as steady as any bench guy the last X amount of years, and they’ve got the greatest coach to probably coach the game, you need more?”

That about covers it. Aldridge has been bombing away from three more consistently, which has opened up the Spurs’ offense (they’re ninth the past two weeks), but they’re still having trouble defensively.

“We’ve had too many lapses over the year where we’ve just been inconsistent,” DeRozan told The Athletic after beating the Heat. “We’ve just given teams confidence in running off points and losing leads.”

With Ayton’s mobility against Aldridge and the groove the Suns found offensively on the road, this seems like a good matchup. The last times these teams played, Ayton was still finishing up his suspension.

San Antonio is on the second night of a back-to-back as well, having won a close game against Miami at home on Sunday. The Suns have rarely been able to take advantage of tired teams at home this season, which should be an advantage. Maybe the momentum from the road helps them flip that trend against the Spurs.

Prediction

Considering San Antonio’s recent strong play, the playoff implications, and Ayton’s back to back strong games, this is one of my most anticipated games of the year. Certain points in the season feel bigger than others, and coming off a solid road trip with several really important games on the schedule heading into the All-Star break, this one has the potential to be an inflection point of the season.

Of course, I could be just talking myself into that entirely, but I see the Suns seizing the opportunity and building on the east coast swing by beating the Spurs.

Suns 125, Spurs 120