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Pacific Division Race Heats Up in December
December 11, 2013
By Matt Petersen, Suns.com
Tuesday’s win over the Lakers was the first of six games against Pacific Division foes this month. That’s a significant stretch, since the top four teams in that division are separated by just three and a half games as of Wednesday morning.
Tiebreakers could determine whether Phoenix experiences a late season or an early summer. As further motivation, the division winner earns a top-four seed in the playoffs. Such a prize makes all the difference in the competitive Western Conference. Phoenix is currently just a game and a half behind the division-leading Clippers, but that margin right now is the difference between the fourth and eighth seed in the playoffs.
“We’re playing against Sacramento, the Lakers, all those teams that we’re going to battle for the playoff race,” Goran Dragic said. “We have to be focused. It’s going to be an interesting month.”
Golden State Warriors
Record: 12-10, 3rd in Pacific, 9th in West
Next Game vs. Suns: Dec. 15
Perhaps the most popular team in last year’s playoffs, the Warriors were expected to take a leap from pleasant surprise to legitimate contender this year.
Instead they’ve struggled, though they’ve played more games against opponents out West than any other team in that conference. Against teams currently in the top 12 in the West, Golden State is just 3-9.
Stephen Curry (23.6 ppg, 8.9 apg) and Klay Thompson (21.0 ppg, 45.7 3FG%) are having career years, but their highlight-friendly style of play has also produced the third-highest turnover rate (17.0 topg) in the league.
Injuries have also slowed the progress of this team and subsequently altered the rotation and roles for Head Coach Mark Jackson. Andre Iguodala has missed nine straight games, robbing the Warriors of their best perimeter defender and veteran presence.
Record: 14-8, 1st in Pacific, 4th in West
Next Game vs. Suns: Dec. 30
They don’t prefer the “Lob City” moniker anymore, but that hasn’t stopped the Clippers from being a regular in the highlight reel.
That hasn’t helped this L.A. team take a significant step forward. Despite the additions of Head Coach Doc Rivers and shooters like J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, they’re on pace to finish four wins worse than a season ago.
The Clippers have a chance to pad their record on the back end of their current seven-game road trip, making stops out East at Boston, Brooklyn and Washington before returning for a slate of Western opponents.
Despite their collective hiccups, expect Chris Paul (18.7 ppg, 12.0 apg) and Blake Griffin (20.7 ppg, 10.6 rpg) to help the Clippers remain the biggest challenge in the Pacific Division.
Record: 10-11, 4th in Pacific, 12th in West
Next Game vs. Suns: Dec. 23
The Suns got an early start in the tiebreaker race after Tuesday’s win at Staples Center. They did that by hitting the boards (44-34 rebounding advantage) and holding the Lakers to just 5-of-19 from beyond the arc.
That’s essentially the way to beat them this year, as L.A. relies heavily on smaller players’ versatility to play both forward spots. The depth behind Pau Gasol is thin, with Jordan Hill and Robert Sacre offering inconsistent or limited production down low.
Kobe Bryant figures to round into form as the season wears on, but his effect on the Lakers was noticeable against Phoenix. L.A.’s normally free-wheeling offense was slowed down, and their best stretches of the game came when he was sitting and point guard Steve Blake was managing the offense.
How well and how soon the Lakers reintegrate Bryant into their offense will determine whether they stay within striking distance in the standings.
Record: 12-9, 2nd in Pacific, 8th in West
Phoenix has made the most positive swing from predictions to reality, consistently staying at or above .500 despite overwhelmingly low expectations.
The Suns have made the turnaround thanks to its speed (league-leading 20.0 fast break points per game) and defense (Top 10 in opponent field goal percentage and three-point percentage).
Newcomer Eric Bledsoe’s impact (18.6 ppg, 6.2 apg) has been as positive as Suns fans and brass hoped, while Goran Dragic (18.4 ppg, 6.2 apg) has been playing All-Star-caliber basketball since returning from an early-season ankle injury. Markieff and Marcus Morris, along with sharpshooter Gerald Green, give the Suns a steady stream of reserves all capable of going off for 20 points on any given night.
Phoenix is hopeful its current three-game win streak is a sign of further consistency to come, as both Head Coach Jeff Hornacek and his players have stressed the need for sustained effort on a night-to-night basis.
Record: 6-13, 5th in Pacific, 14th in West
Next Game vs. Suns: Dec. 13
Say what you want about the Kings, but they’ve proven a difficult matchup for Phoenix early in the season. The Suns lost both November contests against them, in large part because of defensive letdowns and big man DeMarcus Cousins (46 points, 24 rebounds in two games).
Sacramento has floundered overall, however, leading to their recent move to acquire high-scoring forward Rudy Gay (19.4 ppg). The trade makes ball movement even more of a concern, however, as Gay must now join a shoot-first core of Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, Ben McLemore and Marcus Thornton.
If the Kings can make the parts mesh, they could become as dangerous to the rest of the West as they are to Phoenix, which is hoping to salvage a tie in their season series with Sacramento.