Coming into the season, the Phoenix Suns were expected to compete with the Philadelphia 76ers for the worst record in the NBA. Six months later, while most of the "surprise" teams in the NBA have slipped back to the pack, the Suns are still fighting for a playoff spot in the West. Even if they don't make the playoffs, their season has made first-year coach Jeff Hornacek one of the favorites for Coach of the Year.
A decade after Mike D'Antoni won the award in Phoenix, Hornacek has completed a remarkably similar turnaround. Both coaches run the spread pick-and-roll, spreading the floor with four three-point shooters and forcing the defense to choose between defending the rim and the three-point line. Steve Nash went from fringe All-Star to MVP under D'Antoni; Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic have become two of the best young PG's in the NBA under Hornacek.
It's very hard to defend a team like Phoenix, especially if you are a team that likes to play an uptempo style of basketball. When Dragic and Bledsoe are both healthy, the Suns can run pick-and-rolls and attack a defense for the entire 48 minutes. If neither is on the floor, their offense becomes more manageable. Dragic missed their loss against San Antonio last night with a sprained ankle -- his health will be a huge story-line tonight.
PG - Eric Bledsoe - After two seasons backing up Chris Paul, "Mini-LeBron" made a name for himself in his first season as a starter, averaging 18 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds and 1.5 steals a game on 47% shooting. At 6'1 190 with a 6'7 wingspan, he's as good an athlete as there is in the NBA and he plays much bigger than size. Like most young PG's, his big weakness is valuing possessions - he went for 30/11/9 against the Spurs, but he also had 7 turnovers.
SG - Goran "The Dragon" Dragic - Like Bledsoe, The Dragon has had a career-year playing in Hornacek's system. He's slightly more efficient on the offensive end, but he's not nearly the defensive player Bledsoe is. If he's near 100% after tweaking his ankle, he will be an almost impossible cover for Jose Calderon. If he can only play limited minutes, the Suns will have to play more of 3rd PG Ish Smith.
SF - P.J. Tucker - The former Longhorn great is the Suns glue guy, a 6'6 225 small forward who plays much bigger than his size. He was drafted in 2006 but spent five seasons in Europe before catching on with Phoenix in 2012 - like Patrick Beverley, he plays like a guy who had to fight his way into the NBA. You want to run him off the three-point line and put a body on him on the offensive glass -- Tucker is not a guy who is going to kill you creating his own offense.
PF - Channing Frye - In his own way, Frye might be the most indispensable player on the Suns. At 6'11 245, he stretches the floor from the four position and is one of their best interior defenders to boot. If Dirk could not dribble or create his own shot, he would be Frye -- that's how good a shooter this guy is. He's been going through a shooting slump, but he's still not someone you want to leave open from behind the arc.
C - Miles Plumlee - An extremely athletic but offensive limited big man who has only three tasks -- run, jump and rebound. He's the roll man on the pick-and-roll and he sprints the floor in transition. It's a very similar offense to what Dallas does with Dirk and Brandan Wright. He's not great at protecting the rim or playing interior defense, so that should create some openings on the other end of the floor.
PF/C - Markieff Morris - The bigger of the two Morris twins has put together a 6MOY type season, averaging 14 points, six rebounds and two assists a game on 48% shooting. His versatility is invaluable to the Suns, especially against second units -- Markieff spreads the floor, can get his own shot and can defend multiple positions on the front-court. He closes a lot of games for them with Frye at the five.
SG - Gerald Green - The former Maverick great has finally begun to put his prodigious physical gifts together, almost a decade after he first entered the league. He's an ELITE athlete and a good outside shooter, so when his shot is falling, there's not much to be done. At the same time, he's still not a great decision maker and he can get sped up and start forcing shots. Green giveth and taketh away for the Suns.
SF/PF - Marcus Morris - Just like Markieff, except he's slightly smaller, a better shooter and plays a slightly smaller role for the Suns. The Morris twins allow Hornacek to match-up with any line-up the Mavs use -- Marcus and Markieff can guard Wright, Sam Dalembert, Dejuan Blair, Dirk or Shawn Marion. I expect them to only go eight men tonight -- if Phoenix has to dip any further into their bench, it's a win for the Mavs.
Ish Smith, Alex Len and Archie Goodwin - their 3rd PG and two rookies. Ish is extremely fast but his lack of shooting kills the Suns offense. Len and Goodwin both have a lot of talent, but they aren't ready for a game like this.
Keys to the Game
Miles Plumlee is the only player in the Suns Top Eight who can't shoot threes. The Mavs have to get out on shooters and run them off the three-point line. If they give Phoenix a lot of open looks from beyond the arc, it could be a bad situation. The tough part is how to defend the pick-and-roll and get out to the three-point line -- you have to be careful with Blair's minutes tonight because his lack of height makes him really vulnerable on the pick-and-roll.
Control the tempo
The Mavs don't want to get this game going too up and down -- the Suns are almost impossible to defend in the open court. More than anything else, Dallas needs to win the turnover battle and force Phoenix to execute in the half-court. They don't have anyone who can guard Dirk and they will have a hard time keeping up with Wright in the pick-and-roll -- pound the ball inside, get Frye and their other big man shooters out of rhythm.
Get to the rim
The Suns, like the Mavs, don't have a premier shot blocker who can lock down the paint. If you get the ball to the front of the rim, Phoenix is vulnerable. If you start taking too many too many tough jumpers and letting them get run-outs the other way, it could be a problem.
* * *
Nothing is given in the West. This should be a really close game that goes down to the wire -- Dallas doesn't really have the talent edge on Phoenix and they both play a similar style of basketball. Home-court, and getting a few crucial turnovers late, could be huge. The Mavs don't want their season to come down to a win or go home in The Grindhouse on Wednesday, so this is a must-win.
No matter what happens, it should be fun. This is some high-stakes basketball with two teams who can score the ball in a hurry. Buckle up.