Suns' Mission: Slow Down Suddenly-Potent Kings
When they take to the US Airways Center court Wednesday night, Suns Head Coach Lindsey Hunter will undoubtedly have his defensive schemes in place for a team that is now beginning to realize that potential on the offensive end of the floor.
Having now settled upon Isaiah Thomas as the lead guard, Tyreke Evans as a guard/forward combo scorer, DeMarcus Cousins as the leader in the post and a rotation of contributors that can string together points quickly, the Kings have been the most productive offensive team in the NBA since the All-Star break.
That’s correct, these Kings have averaged just over 108 points per game to lead the league in 18 games since the All-Star Weekend. They have also scored at least 100 points in 19 of their last 22 games.
Phoenix fully understands its opposition’s new-found offensive potency, considering the last time these two teams played Sacramento edged the Suns 121-112 on March 8. But as Hunter continues to stress defense, his goal is to have his team more prepared this time around in order to put the clamps down on the Kings.
Here are five other things to keep an eye on going into this Wednesday night contest:
Centered on O’Neal
Even as Thomas has led the Kings offensive resurgence from the point guard position, most discussions about defending Sacramento start with DeMarcus Cousins. For the Suns, that will mean a healthy Jeramine O’Neal could be instrumental to frustrating Cousins down low.
O’Neal had missed two games due to a strained calf and stomach virus, but he returned to play on Wednesday in Utah. Against the Jazz, the 17-year veteran had three points, four rebounds and one block in 16 minutes.
Earlier in the week Hunter said the calf could nag at O’Neal as this season comes to a close, but he is hoping that his best big man will still find a way to effectively nag Cousins.
Continuing to Emerge
Wesley Johnson was his coach’s “obvious pick” as the younger Suns player who has emerged the most this season. On Wednesday night Johnson continued to prove why his coach has turned to him as a marksman from the outside and a defensive presence.
Hunter’s message to Johnson has consistently been to shoot, not hesitate. Against the Jazz, Johnson fired seven shots from downtown, making four threes. At the end of the night, he had a team-high 22 points on 50 percent shooting.
But at 6-7, the swingman can also affect the game defensively, and he accumulated three steals against Utah.
Opportunity At the Point
In the absence of Goran Dragic on Wednesday night in Utah, the Suns turned to rookies Kendall Marshall and Diante Garrett. Both showcased the kind of skills that have brought them to Phoenix.
Marshall played his part as distributor and led the team with 13 assists in 34 minutes. The jump shot that he has been working so steadily at failed him, though, as he missed both threes attempted. Marshall shot 2-of-7 from the field for seven points.
Garrett exerted himself a little more as a scorer. The Iowa State product nailed 4-of-5 shots for eight points in the 14 minutes he received.
It’s not a bad thing to be a point guard and have the name Isiah Thomas, or Isaiah Thomas. Sure, the names are spelled different but the point remains:The Kings second-year point guard out of the University of Washington isn't doing a bad job replicating the former Detroit Pistons great.
Although not in the same class as the 1980s star, this Thomas has been establishing himself as a scoring point guard for the recently-successful Sacramento offense. In three of the Kings’ last four games Thomas has been their leading scorer, and over his last five games he has averaged 19.4 points and 5.0 assists.
It’s also wise to not put him on the free-throw line. Thomas has become the league’s fourth-best free throw shooter and has made 100 of his last 104 attempts from the charity stripe.
Matchup at the Wing
Whether it’s P.J. Tucker or Johnson, the Suns’ wing players are going to have to find a way to negate Tyreke Evans.
Now in his fifth season, Evans hasn’t quite lived up to the Rookie of the Year status he earned after the 2009-10 season. Even though his scoring average has dropped a little this season from a year ago - a consistent trend over Evans' career in Sacramento - he has improved his shooting.
As Thomas and Cousins have taken more control of the offense, it has become increasingly important for Evans to become more of a threat as a spot-up shooter. This season he has improved upon his career average three-point shooting by nearly 15 percentage points.