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Game Preview: Suns host LaMelo’s Hornets, Book return possible

Phoenix has continued their torrid start despite the injury to Devin, who could make his return tonight

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Charlotte Hornets Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

What: Phoenix Suns (23-5) vs. Charlotte Hornets (16-15)

When: 6:00 PM AZ Time

Where: Footprint Center, Phoenix, AZ

Watch: Bally’s Sports AZ

Listen: 98.7 FM


For every challenge facing the Phoenix Suns these days, it seems as though the franchise has an answer. The organization’s high-end talent, chemistry, and depth have been on full display as Christmas approaches, resulting in a 23-5 record that paces the NBA. Behind Monty and CP3’s stewardship- as well as key contributions from young core players and savvy veterans alike- Phoenix has stemmed the tide while Devin Booker recovers from a hamstring injury. After Friday’s 118-98 evisceration of the Wizards, the Suns sit at 5-2 during Book’s hiatus. Tonight, they host another team on the mend- the Charlotte Hornets.

Despite losing seven of ten, prospects are bright for the slumping Hornets. Early this week, Charlotte welcomed back starters Terry Rozier and Mason Plumlee from the injury report. In addition, Friday brought the return of wunderkind LaMelo Ball from a six-game absence, where he promptly posted 27 points in a loss to the Blazers. While the Hornets will gladly welcome this trio back, the play of wings Miles Bridges and Gordon Hayward has been encouraging in their stead. Miles Bridges is averaging 18.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG, and 6.4 APG on 53% FG over the past two weeks, while Hayward dropped 41 on the Spurs through three quarters on Wednesday. Currently sitting at sixth in the East, when healthy the Hornets have enough quality depth to cause problems for elite teams in either conference.

Likely Starting Lineups

Suns

  • Chris Paul
  • Landry Shamet... but maybe Devin Booker!!!
  • Mikal Bridges
  • Jae Crowder
  • DeAndre Ayton

Hornets

  • LaMelo Ball
  • Terry Rozier
  • Gordon Hayward
  • Miles Bridges
  • Mason Plumlee

Injury Report

Suns

Frank Kaminsky is out indefinitely with a stress reaction in his right knee.

Dario Šarić is still out while rehabbing his knee.

Also...

Hornets

Charlotte is set to have its full roster available tonight.


What to Watch For

  • Battle of the Bridges: tonight’s contest offers national pundits and League Pass enthusiasts another opportunity to learn which Bridges is which! Each is making waves in their fourth professional season, with the Suns’ wing generating Defensive Player of the Year buzz and the Hornets forward earning recognition as a Most Improved Player candidate.
  • Guess Who’s Back: tonight marks Kelly Oubre Jr.’s first trip to The Valley as a member of the Hornets. After a tough fit in The Bay last season, Kelly seems to have hit his stride after moving back east. He is averaging 16.6 PPG on career-high efficiencies both from the field and from three, and has positive on-off splits thus far on the year. As Suns fans know, Oubre can swing a game with his energy and streaky shooting.
  • Charlotte’s No Good, Horrible Defense: to be honest, the numbers are ghastly. The Hornets are dead last in defensive rating, points allowed per game, and two-point percentage allowed. Even when they do force misses, they often allow offensive rebounds (their defensive rebound rate is 28th in the NBA). Damian Lillard was the latest to victimize the team, dropping his season-high 43 on Friday. Chris Paul is probably the last person James Borrego wants to see right now.

Keys to a Suns Win

  1. Continued Dominance from the Pivot: both DA and JaVale have helped pick up the slack in Book’s absence. Over his past five games, Ayton is averaging 19.4 PPG and 10.0 RPG, including his 28-point, 13-rebound return from illness on Tuesday. Meanwhile, McGee is averaging 12.0 PPG and 9.0 RPG in just 16 minutes per game over his past seven contests. While Charlotte’s center rotation of Miles Plumlee and PJ Washington (along with some small-ball Bridges) is solid, these are matchups that the Suns’ bigs should exploit.
  2. Matching the Hornets’ Performance on the Wing: If Phoenix’s Bridges-Crowder-Johnson trio can match the play of Hayward, Bridges, Oubre, and Martin, the Suns should emerge victorious. Provided the abundance of scoring, playmaking, and explosiveness that Borrego’s quartet provides, that is a tall task. If Mikal supplements his tenacious defense with aggressive offense, and Cam can continue his blazing tear (12.8 PPG, 47% 3’s over his last 15 games), it would go a long way. Some heady defense and a couple of patented Jae Crowder and-one threes would not hurt, either.
  3. Getting Stops: Offensively, the Hornets can go blow for blow with anyone in the league. However, while Charlotte plays defense like the first three quarters of the all-star game, Phoenix is elite on that side of the ball. If the Suns- led by Mikal Bridges on the perimeter and Deandre Ayton down low- provide their customary effort and communication, they should generate enough stops to win this game. Their offense will take care of itself.

Prediction Time

The Suns have earned their perch atop the league standings. With that being said, this game is still a bit scary. The Hornets have legitimate talent and depth, and are healthy for the first time in weeks. If this game becomes a track meet, it could cause the Suns some problems.

What Phoenix does have is one (and possibly two) of the NBA’s preeminent closers. Even if Book cannot go tonight, Chris Paul’s immaculate ability to manufacture points in the clutch gives Phoenix a unique edge. Suns win, 115-110.