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Preview: Suns finish off road trip with tough test in Utah

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After splitting an Eastern Conference back-to-back over the weekend, the Suns run into the improving Jazz.

Utah Jazz v Phoenix Suns Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

What: Phoenix Suns (23-34) @ Utah Jazz (36-20)

When: 7 p.m. MST

Where: Salt Lake City, Utah

TV: Fox Sports Arizona

Radio: 98.7 FM


Last week, I wrote a column about how the Suns are not going to pack it in and tank this year. The way their roster is built sort of prevents that, but they also are trying to develop a sense of pride and build a culture that would be negatively affected by giving up on the season.

Still, the Suns’ goals for this season ought to be internal going forward. There is no sense in going all out fighting for a playoff berth that is unlikely to come; asking the world out of your star players isn’t going to get you anywhere when you’re six games out of the playoffs.

The games are less about the opponent or the standings now than the Suns themselves. A matchup in Utah is going to be low-scoring and physical, but it’s a fantastic test for Deandre Ayton. This is a team the Suns played close last time they played in Phoenix.

Phoenix Suns

No. 13 in the Western Conference

109.9 ORtg (17th) - 111.5 DRtg (18th) = minus-1.6 netRtg (19th)

Projected starters: Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton

Back to Ayton. This quote from Gina Mizell after the comeback win over Chicago epitomized not only Ayton’s night-and-day turnaround from the first half to the second on Saturday night, but his career as a whole:

“It shouldn’t be like that to where somebody has to throw the first punch at me, but it (is) sometimes,” Ayton acknowledged. “My teammates woke me up, like always. Coach (Williams) got on me. Coach (Mark) Bryant got on me. And, yeah, I answered.”

After six turnovers in the first half that helped Chicago build a 17-point lead, Ayton turned it around — on both ends — and took the game home for the Suns. It’s the type of mental and physical toughness Ayton has rarely put together over 48 minutes, let alone two or three weeks at a time.

Ayton has not faced Rudy Gobert this season. As a rookie, Ayton used to constantly discuss his individual matchups, the tidbits he learned from playing them, and different ways they surprised him or punked him on the court. His tone has been different this season. Rarely will you hear Ayton focus on the opposing team. Instead, it’s about the fundamentals he’s trying to build on with help from assistant coach Mark Bryant and plenty of reinforcement from his teammates.

Though you won’t hear from Ayton about how tough it is to face Gobert, it’s an incredible test of his improvement in his second season — and the ability to stay consistent.

Utah Jazz

No. 5 in the Western Conference

112.4 ORtg (10th) - 108.6 DRtg (9th) = plus-3.8 netRtg (8th)

Projected starters: Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, Gobert

The big thing to watch right now with Utah is its rotation. As Jonathan Tjarks pointed out at The Ringer last week, the trio of Conley/Mitchell/Ingles has been outscored by 0.1 points per 100 possessions this season, while other combos perform much better.

Jonathan Tjarks, The Ringer

As Ingles continues to improve as a play-maker, the Jazz are running into the classic only-one-ball conundrum. That’s not to mention the fact that Bogdanovic is probably the team’s most efficient scorer, and Gobert needs to get the ball on dives to the rim from time to time to keep the defense honest. It’s going to be a fascinating problem going forward — if Utah figures out who they want to play, they could be a legitimate championship contender.

Prediction

This one could get ugly. The reason the Suns stayed close to the Jazz when these teams met in Phoenix earlier in the season is that Aron Baynes — then the starter — and Frank Kaminsky were challenging Gobert defensively in ways Ayton just can’t without the threat of a 3-point shot. I have no doubt the Suns can keep up with the scoring of Mitchell and Bogdanovic, but Ayton will have to be elite on defense for the Suns to have a chance.

Jazz 115, Suns 100