February 1, 2012

Were now only one-third of the way through the NBAs 66-game regular season, but Wednesdays matchup between the Hornets and Suns already marks the third time these Western Conference clubs have met in 2011-12. The familiar foes opened their four-game, head-to-head series on Dec. 26, when New Orleans shooting guard Eric Gordon drained the game-winning basket of an 85-84 road victory. Four days later, however, Phoenix spoiled New Orleans final home game of the 2011 calendar year, posting a 93-78 victory. The Suns broke it open in the middle quarters, outscoring their hosts by a 53-39 tally. It was the Hornets first loss of the regular season, after theyd started 2-0.

The fourth and final Hornets-Suns meeting is scheduled to take place in exactly two months, on April Fools Day in Phoenix. Incidentally, that game will be contested on the day between the NCAA mens basketball Final Four (March 31) and the national championship game (April 2) in New Orleans.

Normally a high-powered offensive team that plays games with final scores well into the 100s, the Suns have been held mostly in check by the Hornets in the two prior matchups. In fact, both previous encounters could most accurately be described as defensive struggles. New Orleans prevailed on Dec. 26 despite going just 2-for-16 from three-point range, partly because it held Phoenix to 5-for-25 accuracy from beyond the arc in the same game. In the Dec. 30 contest, the Hornets shot a dreadful 28.9 percent from the field and managed just 33 second-half points.

Offensive balance was also a critical factor in determining the outcome of the December matchups. The Hornets had six different players who reached double-digit points in their road win, a statistic matched by the Suns when the triumphed here in the Big Easy.

Intriguing matchup: Point guard, Jarrett Jack vs. Steve Nash
After sluggish starts to the season by the Hornets and Suns, both players seem to have made an effort to carry a larger scoring load while trying to generate more victories for their teams. After scoring 20 points or more just twice in NOLAs first 11 games, Jack reached 20 points five times in the next seven games. Meanwhile, Nash registered three of his top four point totals in 2011-12 during a recent mid-January road trip that includes stops in San Antonio, Chicago and New York. As of Tuesday morning, Nashs status for Wednesday was uncertain. He missed Mondays home loss to Dallas due to injury.


In their attempt to return to the playoffs after missing the Western Conference postseason in 2011, the Suns are off to an inconsistent start, already 4 1/2 games out of eighth place in the standings at 7-13. In an early sign of their up-and-down play so far, the Suns lost to the Hornets in their home opener, but then easily defeated the Hornets in New Orleans later in the same week. After an encouraging 3-1 stretch improved Phoenixs record to .500 at 4-4, the Suns proceeded to go on a five-game losing streak. Immediately after that season-high skid, however, Phoenix posted consecutive victories at New York and Boston, two traditionally difficult places for road teams to prevail. While the Suns have done well in spurts on the road thus far, theyve damaged their chances to hover around playoff contention with home losses to below-.500 Eastern Conference opponents Cleveland, New Jersey and Toronto.

Whats new
Of the 10 Suns players who have received the most playing time through late January, three of them are newcomers to the squad. Free-agent signee Shannon Brown is fourth on Phoenix in scoring, despite only starting one game. A first-round pick, rookie forward Markieff Morris appears to have been an excellent draft selection early in his pro career, providing scoring and rebounding despite playing only about 21 minutes per game. Backup point guard Ronnie Price has started a handful of times but otherwise fills in minutes off the bench behind Steve Nash. Two other new players, point guard Sebastian Telfair and shooting guard Michael Redd, have received sporadic minutes. Redd, a former All-Star with the Milwaukee Bucks, returned to the NBA this season after sitting out nearly all of 2009-10 and 2010-11 with injuries.

Suns star
Nash will turn 38 years of age on Feb. 7, but remains one of the NBAs most effective point guards, due to his unique combination of shooting and passing skills. One Holy Grail of shooting for NBA players is to reach 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the foul line, but Nash has achieved a 50-40-90 over a full season five times. The 6-foot-3, 178-pounder was on a similar pace through 17 games this season, at 54/38/88.

Sun on the rise
Morris, whose twin brother Marcus Morris is a rookie with the Houston Rockets, has shown plenty of promise after being selected 13th overall in the 2011 NBA Draft. On a team that historically has relied heavily on three-point shooting, the Kansas product has been an ideal fit. Hes been red-hot from long distance so far, connecting on 17 of his first 35 three-point attempts. In his first official NBA game, Morris tallied seven points and nine rebounds against New Orleans.

On the sideline
At three of his four head-coaching stops in the NBA, Alvin Gentry has taken over a team midway through a season, replacing the incumbent after a rough start. That happened again with Phoenix in 2008-09, when Gentry took over on an interim basis after the Suns fired Terry Porter. Over the final 31 games of that season, Gentry led Phoenix to an 18-13 record, which eventually led to him being named the permanent head coach prior to 2009-10. The Suns went 54-28 and made it all the way to the Western Conference finals in Gentrys first full season at the helm, but slipped to 40-42 last season.

Did you know?
Phoenix has finished in the top five of the NBA in scoring average every season since 2004-05, a streak that appears to be in jeopardy if the early results of 2011-12 are any indication. The Suns are only averaging 91.6 points per game, far below their pace last season of 105.0, which placed them fourth out of 30 teams.

Players the Suns want shooting free throws in a close game... If the Suns need a three-pointer, three of their best options are...
Name Career FT percentage (through Jan. 26)
Second-best rate in NBA history, behind only Mark Price.
Aggressive penetrator and athlete who draws regular fouls.
Only 11 attempts in his first 370 minutes played this season.
Name Career three-point percentage (through Jan. 26)
Rookie has been more accurate from beyond arc than inside it.
Fourth-best rate among all active NBA players.
Started first 13 games of 2011-12 before moving to a reserve role.

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