The regular season is far from over, and the Phoenix Suns can’t be taking anything for granted. But as they’re sitting in first place just now, it seems a pretty safe bet they’ll be a very high playoff seed, if not the #1 in the West.
With that in mind, the remainder of the season, while important for securing that high seed, also offers both the Suns and the fans a chance to see how the top teams match up with each other as the playoffs get closer.
Here are five matchups that could be key for the Suns in terms of both securing playoff position and preparing for playoff matchups.
1. Playoff preview with the Utah Jazz, Jan. 24 and Jan. 26
These aren’t the Suns’ last games against the Jazz this season, but this pair of tilts is like a mini playoff series with games in Phoenix and Salt Lake City separated by a travel day. The Jazz are a tough opponent with the league’s top offense, a solid (if not as good as the past few years) defense, and an ability to shoot the lights out from deep. Utah looks like a solid bet to secure a top 4 seed, so the Suns wouldn’t see them early in the playoffs...but the road back to the finals may well involve the Jazz at some point and this pair of games may just offer a glimpse of what that could look like.
2. Milwaukee Bucks, Feb. 10.
Hard to believe, but this will be the first time the Suns have seen the reigning NBA champs this season. The Bucks are locked in the very tight race that is the whole Eastern Conference, only 3 games out of first place but also only 3.5 games ahead of the #8 spot. Nearly all of their best players have missed at least 8 games though, so their record may not be representative of the team they could field in the playoffs. The two teams could only meet in the NBA Finals, as far as the playoffs go, but it would also be great for the Suns to vanquish the ghost of last season’s crushing finals loss with at least one decisive win over the Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who tortured the Suns last time he met them.
3. @ Minnesota Timberwolves, March 23.
Strange to think, but the Timberwolves are duking it out with the Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks, and both Los Angeles teams for the last few playoff opportunities. This positioning near the back of the playoff pack makes them a potential first-round matchup for the Suns. The Suns beat the Wolves 99-96 in Minnesota back in November, and they’ll have a game between now and this one, but this one shortly before the playoff start could showcase both teams in their final incarnations. The Suns are clearly a better team, but the Wolves have some talent and shouldn’t be overlooked.
4. @ Golden State Warriors, March 30
The Warriors look to be the Suns’ top rivals for the title of Best in the West, and this will be their final regular season meeting of four contests. The Suns are currently 1-2 against the Warriors this season, most recently losing to them in the Christmas Day matchup that Devin Booker would probably like to forget as he scored only 13 points on 5/19 shooting. These last few games could be key for playoff positioning and as a final chance to take stock against a top rival boasting the league’s most effective defense.
5. @ Memphis Grizzlies, April 1.
Ah, the Grizzlies. We all remember so many tough contests with this under the radar team that has this season pushed itself square into the discussion with some red-hot play as of late. This one will be the rubber match of the three games the two teams play this season, having split the first two. The Grizzlies are a top 10 club on both ends of the floor and feature a balanced attack, and the Suns shouldn’t be surprised if this tough team is standing in the way come playoff time.
So, Brightsiders...what teams are you most focused on matching up with in the second half? Did I snub the Lakers? Have at it.