The All-Star break is over and the Suns are back at work.
The prolonged weekend will have hopefully erased the memory and trends that saw Phoenix drop three of their previous four games, though a double-digit home win over Golden State – with whom the Suns are tied in the standings – did much to blunt the edge of that stretch.
Denver is next, a mile-high test of endurance after a low-key break. Can the Suns overcome the elements against a team the standings indicate is inferior? Here are five things that will answer that.
Goran Dragic saw a streak of seven consecutive games of at least 20 points end against Miami last week. Teams are clearly gearing their defenses in an effort to contain the Slovenian playmaker, knowing the offense starts – and often ends – with him in some fashion.
Denver’s Ty Lawson, however, does not have the same luxury as Miami’s point guards in that he cannot solely expand his energy on defense and then settle for spot-up jumpers on the other end. He is Denver’s leading scorer and assist-man (18.0 ppg, 8.8 apg), which should make the point guard matchup the most critical one of the night.
Denver ranks sixth in the league in rebounding, including offensive boards (12.2 per game). J.J. Hickson (11.7 ppg, 9.4 rpg) and Kenneth Faried (10.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg) are the main enforcers on the glass, though they get plenty of help from Timofey Mozgov and Wilson Chandler.
Part of the reason for Phoenix’s 3-0 season against the Nuggets so far this season is their limiting of Denver’s damage on the offensive glass. The Suns have held them to well under their season average in that stat in all three meetings (9.3).
In the previously mentioned four-game stretch, the Suns have turned the ball over an average of 17.3 times per contest, fourth-most in the league in that span.
Turnovers have been the ultimate swing play for Phoenix this season. Cause the opponents to commit them, and they usually run away with the win. Commit them, and the other team hangs around longer or pulls ahead sooner.
The latter is true even against struggling teams. Among the sub-.500 clubs Phoenix has lost to when committing at least 15 turnovers: Chicago, Brooklyn, Sacramento and (at the time) Washington.
Both teams were likely grateful for the All-Star break. Phoenix had dropped three of four, but Denver had lost four in a row by an average of 27.5 points per game.
All of those losses for Denver came on the road, though only one of them was against a winning team (Indiana). Like Phoenix, they’re hoping for a fresh start after the mid-season classic.
How active each team is in setting the early-game tone will be worth noting.
The Suns’ backup big man has had more than his fair share of success against Denver this season, averaging 23 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 1.0 blocks while shooting 56.4 percent against the Nuggets.
Morris’ height enables him to shoot over Faried, while his speed serves him well against bigger defenders like Hickson or Mozgov.
Expect Phoenix to go to Morris early and often in tonight’s game.