What: Phoenix Suns (46-18) at Cleveland Cavaliers (21-43)
When: 4:00 PM AZ Time ****EARLY TIP ALERT***
Where: On the road in Cleveland
Watch: Bally Sports Arizona
Listen: 98.7 FM
The Suns are on a 4-game winning streak while the Cavaliers are on a 6-game losing streak. Since the All-Star break, the Suns are a league-leading 22-7 while the Cavaliers are 3rd-worst 7-21. The Suns clinched a top-four seed — guaranteeing home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs — while the Cavaliers are in a full tank mode.
Trap game alert?
Maybe. Certainly that Suns-OKC game felt like a trap after OKC had lost by 57 points to Indiana the night before and the Suns were properly rested. The Suns came out cold, got a good lead then nearly fumbled it away before closing out a tight 123-120 win.
The Cavaliers are decimated. Darius Garland (ankle), Larry Nance Jr. (thumb), Matthew Dellevadova (neck), Isaiah Hartenstein (concussion), Taurean Prince (ankle), Lamar Stevens (concussion) and Dylan Windler (knee) are all OUT.
The Suns are close, but not perfect. Jae Crowder (ankle) and Cam Payne (knee) are listed as OUT on the Suns injury report, along with Abdel Nader (knee surgery).
The Cavs are having a tough season after starting well. They have had injuries to some good players, most notably Larry Nance Jr., and have otherwise been relying on kids too young to be relied on for wins. Let’s review their young core (3 of 4 will play tonight).
Collin Sexton, 22 years old, looks like a future Jordan Clarkson type — a small-ish shooting guard who can score in bunches. He’s averaging early Booker numbers with 24.4 points (38% 3P shooting), 4.1 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game. I’d say he could be Devin Booker one day, but he’s only 6’1”, gets tunnel vision, and is much more suited to a shooting guard role going forward.
Darius Garland, 21, has been getting better all season. For the season, he’s averaging 17.7 points (39% 3P shooting) and 6.2 assists on the season, including 19.5/6.5 since the All-Star Break. He won’t play in Tuesday’s game, but you should know about him for the future because he’s going to have a long career.
On the wing, rookie Isaac Okoro, 20, looks like a potential defensive stopper who just needs to get his shot right to become a real threat. He has started all 59 games for the young Cavs, playing 31 minutes a night, but is making just 28% of his threes and scoring just 8.6 points per game. Think Mikal Bridges, not in terms of body type but in terms of rookie season vibes (Okoro doesn’t have the college pedigree that Mikal did, though).
In the middle, thanks to a head-scratching Rockets-Nets trade, the Cavs added four-year starter Jarrett Allen for a second round pick. In that trade, the Nets (James Harden), Cavs (Allen) and Pacers (Caris LeVert) got the three best players while the Rockets got... Kelly Olynyk?
Allen, still just 22, is scoring a career-high 13.7 points per game and grabbing 9.9 rebounds per game. He’s been remarkably consistent the last three years (two with the Nets), growing excellent hair, getting highlight blocks and being efficient around the rim on both ends. He’s only 22 still, but four mirror-image years indicate his ceiling and floor have basically met in the middle. He’s going to be a 15-year NBA player and 10-year starter.
That’s a core of four guys 22-and-under that will be supplemented with likely the best prospect of them all in the 2021 Draft, as long as the Cavs stay in the Top 5. The good thing about this core is that the Cavs can take the best available player wherever they pick — there’s no “fit” to worry about.
Jae Crowder is still out with the ankle thing. That’s good, to get his rest. But it’s bad for the Suns who have seen a drop-off in overall team net rating without Crowder in the rotation.
Since Feb 1, the Suns are 29-6 with a +8.4 per 100 possessions in 477 minutes with their preferred starting lineup of Chris Paul — Devin Booker — Mikal Bridges — Jae Crowder — Deandre Ayton. The offense and defense are both very good.
Replacing Crowder with Torrey Craig has been good (10-2 record, +14.2 net rating overall, including 4-0 in the last four) in the starting lineup has been an offensive boost but tanked the team defense. And, moving Craig from the bench crew to starter has hurt the bench as well.
But the larger (potential) issue is that the Suns vaunted defense has slipped since the All-Star Break (11th on defense vs. 3rd on offense), most notably with the bench being more porous. The starting unit with Crowder has gotten better and better on both ends, at least. It’s the other lineups that have been worse on defense. Maybe a resurgence from Dario Saric is all the group needs? Who knows. All I know is that defense is key once the playoffs start. So pray for Jae’s health and Dario’s return to the guy who we argued could be the best backup in the league at one point.
Keys to the game
Just play focused, Suns. If they do that, no other keys matter.
Suns will rebound from what they consider a poor performance vs. the Thunder, and cruise over the Cavs.
Suns will win, probably by 20+