When: Friday, 8:00 PM
Where: Footprint Center, Phoenix, AZ
Listen: 98.7 FM
Betting Line: DraftKings has Memphis a 2-point favorite, taking the injury lists into account
Hooooo boy, HERE. WE. GO.
Over the Christmas weekend, the Phoenix Suns will play two of the top teams in the Western Conference, starting with the brash and confident Memphis Grizzlies. Unfortunately, those matchups might come without Devin Booker, let alone a handful of quality role players.
The Suns and Grizzlies are two of FIVE, count em FIVE, teams to lead the West with 19 wins at the same time, along with the Pelicans, Nuggets and Clippers. The five teams are only separated by their number of losses, ranging from 11 (Grizzles and Nuggets) to 14 (Clippers).
The last time the Western Conference didn’t have a team with 20 wins after 30 games was 33 years ago. That year, the 1988-89 season, the Rockets and Lakers led the West with 19-11 records after 30 games played (just like Memphis/Denver this year). The Suns were 4th at 17-11 with Tom Chambers, Kevin Johnson and Eddie Johnson leading the way. By the end of the season, the Suns and Lakers separated themselves from the pack and eventually faced off in the Conference Finals.
Over time, a couple of these teams will separate themselves. For now, it’s a slog.
If the Suns could win both of these weekend games, an extreme long shot considering their injury issues, they could be leading the West by Monday. Lose both, and they could drop to 5th. But don’t sweat it too much. A drop to 5th would leave them no worse than 3 games back of the Conference lead.
The Grizzlies have the best record in the West — if only barely — and they haven’t even had sharp-shooter Desmond Bane for most of that run. Bane and JJJ, their top two players, haven’t played a single game together this year. That may change on Friday against the Suns. Yay, Suns.
The Suns are coming off a dumb loss to the Wizards, while the Grizzlies are coming off a wire-to-wire loss to the very shorthanded Nuggets — who were missing their second and third best players — to fall into a share of the conference lead with them.
Both teams need a win on Friday night.
The last time Ja Morant walked off the Footprint Center floor was almost exactly one year ago, just after hitting a four-step game winner to beat the Suns, 114-113, as time expired.
Probable Starting Lineups
- Devin Booker (groin soreness) is OUT
- Jock Landale (concussion protocol) is QUESTIONABLE
- Josh Okogie (hip) is QUESTIONABLE
- Cameron Payne (foot) is OUT
- Cameron Johnson (knee) is OUT
- Jae Crowder (where for art thou Jae) is NOT WITH TEAM
- Desmond Bane (toe) is QUESTIONABLE but hinting he might play
- Danny Green (knee) is OUT
- Offense: 113.3 (11th)
- Defense: 109.3 (5th)
- Net: 4.0 (6th)
The Grizzlies live off their defense creating turnovers and grabbing rebounds that turn into transition offense that turns into highlight reels. In the half court, if you can slow them down, they’re stuck much more in the mud.
Hot December: The Grizz have really taken off this month. While the Suns were suffering a 5-game losing streak, the Grizzlies went on a 7-game win streak. In December, they are 7-2 with the league’s 2nd best defense thanks mainly to the return of defensive everything Jaren Jackson Jr. to the lineup. Yet their offense has fallen to 13th partly because sharpshooter Desmond Bane has been out.
The Grizzlies are powered mostly by their brash, super-confident, uber-popular leader Ja Morant, who will likely get voted in as a starter to the All-Star game for the next decade.
In a recent interview, he said none of the West teams bother him.
Malika Andrews: "Who do you look at around the league as you're studying and say, 'We're gonna have to run through them?'"— NBACentral (@TheNBACentral) December 21, 2022
Ja Morant: "Celtics"
Malik Andrews: "No one in the West."
Ja Morant: "Nah. I'm fine in the West."
(h/t @_Talkin_NBA )
He’s got just one playoff run under his belt, but it was a good one. Last year, they won a high-scoring series over the Timberwolves before losing in six games to the Warriors — the last three without Ja*, who had suffered a right knee injury when Jordan Poole pulled on it going for a loose ball and missed games 4-6 of the 6-game series.
*Let me digress a moment. Don’t ever tell me the Suns had an ‘easy road’ to the 2021 Finals without recognizing that YET AGAIN the Warriors caught huge injury breaks! Every one of their rings was aided by huge injuries to their opponents. They got lucky in 2022 (Ja in WCF; Robert Williams in the Finals), 2018 (Chris Paul in Game 5 of WCF, as Houston takes a 3-2 lead), 2017 (Kawhi Leonard in the whole WCF) and 2015 (Kyrie Irving AND Kevin Love the whole Finals). That’s four lucky breaks to top-3 players of opponents in four championship seasons. I’m not sayin, I’m just sayin. Anyway, back to the Grizzlies...
So you can see why Ja doesn’t think his poop stinks. He hasn’t actually watched an opponent beat him in a playoff series yet (out of 2 chances). Of course he doesn’t think anyone in the West can beat them.
- Offense: 116.6 (1st)
- Defense: 111.5 (10th)
- Net: 5.1 (3rd)
Somehow the Suns have the league’s best offense this season, after the Celtics have fallen really hard back to earth since their shattering of the Suns a couple weeks ago. Seriously, since embarrassing the Suns and running their record to 21-5 on the season, the Celtics have lost 5 of 6 games with the only win in overtime over the shorthanded Lakers.
Now the Suns have the league’s best offense, going up against one of the league’s best defenses tonight. Unfortunately, the Suns will have to do that without Devin Booker (groin) again.
They need the 37-year old Chris Paul to act like the 36-year old Chris Paul one more time. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely. On Monday, he was really good against a really limited Lakers team, scoring 28 points and dishing 8 assists in the easy win. But then on Tuesday, on the back end of a back to back, he played poorly the whole night and couldn’t help the Suns close it out.
And now, he may or may not be playing through an injury. Paul was NOT placed on the injury report after suffering that stinger against Washington. So he might be fine. Or he might just be suffering through it, considering he’s the only trusted playmaker left (Book and Payne are already rules out).
Cold December: It’s been a bad month. The Suns are just 4-7 in December, with the league’s 3rd best offense but a horrendous 24th best defense (or, 6th worst). Their defensive rating this month is 6 points per game higher than it was through November. Yuck. A lot of that has to do with so many guys out of the lineup, including their top two players — Book and Paul — barely sharing the court, and some of it is because they’ve played a really tough schedule.
Well it’s time to buck up, because they aren’t done with December and there’s more tough games coming before New Year’s: Grizzlies, Nuggets, Grizzlies, Wizards and Raptors.
How to fix the defense
The defense is lagging lately. After ranking in the top 7 over the last 2+ years, it’s dropped to 24th in the month of December. They are allowing a full 6 more points per game this month than last month, a major problem considering even the best teams only outscore opponents an average of 6 points per game.
Suns center Ayton offered up two areas of improvement after the Wizards loss, pinning both on himself.
“I got to protect the paint some more; transition as well,” center Deandre Ayton said when asked about the defensive issues. “Sometimes I can’t get this (offensive) board and just got to get back sometimes. Build a wall and protect my guys; those are the two things I can say that I need to get better when I am on the floor. Transition and protecting the paint a little bit more. Being that anchor.”
He’s taking the hit here, and some of it’s on him. He’s got to protect the paint more in halfcourt defense, and be more vocal on coverages.
But transition vs. offensive boards? That’s a scheme thing. Ayton and Torrey Craig are crashing the offensive glass hard. The Suns rank 3rd in offensive rebound rate this month, grabbing 33% of available boards off their misses. That’s huge, and helps the offense rank 3rd overall this month despite bad shooting. But it hurts the transition defense, leaving too many Suns defenders starting out behind in transition, contributing to that 24th rank on D.
Maybe the Suns will shift back to focusing more on transition defense than crashing the offensive boards, especially against a Memphis team that absolutely kills you in transition. We’ll see tonight.
I don’t have a good feeling about this one. Memphis is almost completely healthy, assuming Bane plays and hasn’t forgotten how to shoot, while the Suns are severely banged up.
This current iteration of the Suns just isn’t very good thanks to the injury report. They need their guys back. And until that happens, most games against good teams will be a slog.
DraftKings has the Grizzlies as a two-point favorite. DaveKing has them a 15-point favorite.
Prediction: Memphis wins, 120-105.