That’s the feel, anyway, in the Western Conference standings. Dallas, Memphis and Phoenix are all separated by just a half-game for the final two playoff spots. They all play each other over the final five days of the season.
Suns-Mavs is up first, and Phoenix will need to rebound from giving up a 21-point lead to the Spurs the night before. Can Phoenix win its most important game yet? Five things serve as indicators…
Quiet Crowd Early
Dallas’ fan base is a raucous one, capable of staying on top of the opposition when the home team gets hot.
The Suns would be well served to start out as well as they did in San Antonio the night before, when they jumped out to a 21-point lead in the first quarter.
Simply put, the Suns need more from its post players. By the time Markieff Morris got going in the fourth quarter, the Spurs had already wiped out their deficit and Phoenix was scrambling to respond.
Channing Frye emerged somewhat in last night’s game, but has hit just one three-pointer over the last four contests. Marcus Morris is averaging less than five points per game over the last four, while P.J. Tucker and Miles Plumlee also turned in single-digit scoring efforts at San Antonio.
Stop the Sniper
Suns Head Coach Jeff Hornacek has maintained a let-the-stars-get-theirs philosophy all season. For the most part, it has worked.
The Spurs pulled away only when Danny Green caught fire. When Dallas beat Phoenix earlier this season, it was because rookie Shane Larkin ignited the Mavericks with 18 points and five assists off the bench.
As tempting as it will be to overcompensate for leading scorers Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis, Phoenix simply can’t allow a role player to overachieve in a game of this magnitude.
The Suns’ leading scorer will be a game-time decision due to a sore ankle, but given the importance of this game will undoubtedly do his best to give it a go.
Assuming he does, the Slovenian’s effectiveness – especially when cutting or moving laterally – will be tested whether he is guarding the slashing Monta Ellis or cagey Jose Calderon.
Who Wants it More?
Both teams need this win. The stakes are too high, the games too few, the standings too tight to afford a loss.
Yet only one team will win this game, and the victor will in large part be determined by its desire when it matters most.
Can the young Suns answer the call on the road against an experienced Mavs team? We’ll know by tonight.