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Game Preview: Suns (7-5) face new look Rockets (4-8) in prime time

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The Suns look to right the ship coming off of consecutive losses. Standing in their way is a Houston team full of new faces.

Houston Rockets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

What: Phoenix Suns (7-5) @ Houston Rockets (4-8)

When: 7:30 p.m. MST

Where: Toyota Center, Houston, TX

Watch: ESPN, FSAZ

Listen: 98.7 FM


The Suns loss on Monday night was another ‘coulda, shoulda, woulda’ game. We coulda played better defense in the 4th. We shoulda protected the ball better. We woulda won if Booker had an average performance.

The loss was due to the lackluster performance of All-Star guard Devin Booker. He will have off nights, as every player does. The hope is he turns it around. And fast. His poor play relative to his status on the team is becoming a trend.

Brush it off.

On to the next one.

The season is still early and the team is 7-5, good enough for 4th in the Western Conference. The ship is still headed in the right direction: towards the Postseason Ocean. We’re going to run into some storms along the way and external variables will shift us off course. The coordinates are set. Time to navigate the rough waters the regular season provides and head to that glorious body of water.

Probable Starting Lineups

Uniform Tracker

It’s Valley time! The Suns will be on national television and showing off their fantastic City Edition uniforms.

The Rockets will have their baby blue City Edition uniforms on display. I guess this is an homage to the Houston Oilers? Warren Moon would be proud.

Out/Injured

Phoenix:

  • Cameron Payne (right ankle)
  • Jalen Smith (health and safety protocols)
  • Dario Saric (health and safety protocols)

Houston:

  • John Wall (left knee soreness)
  • Danuel House (health and safety protocols)
  • Sterling Brown (questionable - right lower leg soreness)
  • Chris Clemons (Achilles)
  • Dante Exum (calf)

Rockets Update

This isn’t the Houston Rockets you are accustomed to. The roster looks mighty different; this team only has four players who were on the roster last season (House, Gordon, McLemore, Tucker).

Last season the Rockets has backcourt duo of James Harden and Russell Westbrook. That duo is no more. Westbrook was sent to Washington for John Wall. Harden forced his way out just 9 days ago for 9 picks and 3 players:

It has been a rocky start for Houston as they’ve had to deal with the Harden drama, injuries, and COVID. The last time they started 4-8 or worse to start a season was the beginning of the 2010-11 campaign; that team’s leading scorer was Kevin Martin. The team is currently 14th in the Western Conference, record-wise. It’s early though as that is only 3.0 games behind Phoenix.

The backcourt in H-Town is now John Wall and Victor Oladipo. Add offseason acquisition Christian Wood at center, and there is your Houston Big 3. Wall, however, is out with soreness in his left knee that is surely worrying the Houston faithful.

Victor Oladipo made his debut on Monday in a 5-point loss to the Chicago Bulls and put in work. 32 points, 9 assist, 5 boards, 2 steals. If he remains healthy, given the structure of this team, Oladipo will thrive offensively. He will get the volume necessary to average 26+ points a night.

Christian Wood is earning the 3 year/$41M deal he signed this offseason (that’s a pretty good deal by the by). He is averaging career highs in points (23.8), rebounds (10.7), field goal attempts (17.6), and blocks (1.7). His weakness? The line. While he averages 4.7 attempts-per-game, he is shooting 67.3%. The is 8th worst in the league for any player who averages over 4 FTA per game.

DeMarcus Cousins is rostered on this team as well, although he is a shell of his All-NBA self. 6.6 points and 5.9 rebounds in 14.2 minutes. Great. Now that I said that he’ll have his best game of the year (previous high this year: 13 points). Writer’s jinx.

Houston’s ranks on the season:

  • Points-per-Game/Offensive Rating: 110.2 (19th)/107.3 (23rd)
  • Opponents Points-per-Game/Defensive Rating: 112.7 (21st)/109.7 (22nd)
  • Net Rating: -2.4 (22nd)
  • 8th in 3PA (37.8), 18th in 3PT% (35.2%)
  • 23rd in total rebounding (43.1)
  • 1st in total attendance

So there will be a crowd! How responsible.

Suns Update

The Suns are officially on a losing streak, having dropped two straight for the first time this season. The last time the Suns lost two in a row? February 29 and March 3, 2020. Nearly a year!

While Devin Booker had his worst shooting night of the year (5-21, 23.8%), Deandre Ayton had a Domin-Ayton performance:

The Suns experimented with Cameron Johnson in the starting lineup and, although it wasn’t a dazzling success, it changed the approach of the first team. Cam brings more athleticism to the starting five and it felt as if we witnessed a fast pace in transition.

The advanced metrics don’t lie, however, and even with a limited sample size, the effectiveness of the first unit remains the primary area of opportunity for the Suns. This rating is down in big part to a substandard Booker performance on Monday:

  • The starting five of Paul, Booker, Bridges, Crowder and Ayton (193 minutes played) net -6.8 points-per-100 possessions.
  • The starting five of Paul, Booker, Bridges, Johnson and Ayton (21 minutes played) net -4.2 points-per-100 possessions.

This was the lineup (sub Paul for Rubio) that brought success in Orlando. Monty has pulled the lever with a new lineup; it is time for the Suns to reward that decision.

How can they do that? Simple. Start fast.

The Suns scoring by quarter and their league ranks thus far:

  • Q1: 25.5 (26th)
  • Q2: 28.3 (17th)
  • Q3: 30.5 (5th)
  • Q4: 24.6 (29th)

Areas of opportunity? Open the game strong, close the game strong. Find the energy found to start the second half and translate that to other areas of the game. Easier said than done, I know, as a team is learning to play together and find the instinctual advantages that will equate to success later in the season.

For more on the Suns, check these over the last couple of days:

Keys to a Suns Win

Houston is banged up. They are a team, like the Suns, that is learning to play with their new pieces. But those pieces are missing. In a game against the Spurs last week they could only dress the league minimum of 8 players. They’re hurting right now.

The key to winning? Be aggressive. Stomp on their throats. Don’t let them think they have a chance in this game. Be the better team for you are the better team. When you give an NBA hope, shots start to fall.

Deny all hope.

Prediction

How great was it to see Deandre Ayton puff his chest out following a reverse dunk and-1 on Monday? Did you get chills? Did the Ayton haters turn their heads and start staring at the wall, noticing that the color of paint wasn’t to their liking, so they decided to get up off their couch, put their mask on, go to Home Depot, and find a swatch that complimented their rug?

It would be nice to see another prime time Ayton performance, wouldn’t it? If the Suns want to win, they’ll need him. Not necessarily on the offensive end, however, but on the defensive end.

Oh, I caught the Ayton haters attention once again. They are done painting the wall and ready to complain about a stat line rather than appreciate his defensive maturity. Christian Wood has been a problem this far this year. Houston likes to get him the ball whenever they can, and guess who will be guarding him?

If Ayton can limit Wood, Suns win.

Suns 112, Rockets 105