A Thin Margin For Error
That all sets up what should be an enticing matchup at US Airways Center for the 7 p.m. tipoff tonight.
Despite how close the two previous games were, the styles in which each game was played couldn’t have been more different – making this game even more of an unknown.
In Minnesota on Dec. 29, Phoenix couldn’t outscore the T-Wolves, losing 111-107 despite 33 points from Luis Scola. Nearly two months later, neither team could muster 90 points despite an additional frame, as the Suns wore down Minnesota for an 84-83 overtime victory.
Entering an unpredictable contest, here are five things to keep your eye on:
Dragic v. Rubio
Two emerging point guards have been busy solidifying themselves in the league since this season’s All-Star break, and there is only one thing that concerns Suns interim Head Coach Lindsey Hunter about tonight’s matchup between Goran Dragic and Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio.
“I just hope that Goran doesn’t get into something and turn this into a one-on-one battle, which he can get into,” Hunter said.
The coach then had a slight chuckle, perhaps indicating a confidence in his point guard even when Dragic enters into one-on-one mode.
In his first full season as a starter for the Suns, Dragic is also the team’s scoring leader. Hunter still needs him to be a playmaker first, though, and also has asked a lot of him from the defensive end of the floor.
Wes’ New World
There is no doubt that Hunter is pleased with the progression of swingman Wesley Johnson, who has now started eight games this season. In his last five contests, the sharpshooter has scored 12.2 points per game, 4.8 rebounds per game and 1.4 steals per game.
Still there is a queasy feeling the head coach gets when he sees the unselfish Johnson pass up a shot.
“He passed up four or five shots ( vs. Washington on Wednesday) that just make your stomach hurt,” Hunter said. “I’ll continue to push him. I’m not going to let up, and he knows it.”
Between his coach’s message and playing against his former team tonight, Johnson could be even more aggressive with his shot.
At times this season, Minnesota has been without Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Chase Budinger, Andrei Kirilenko and Nikola Peković. Tonight Love will still be out for the Timberwolves and Budinger will likely miss the game, but they should have Kirilenko and Peković back.
The Suns counter with a few injury issues of their own. Reserve center Jermaine O’Neal will join starting center Marcin Gortat on the sideline, while Hunter also expects to be without Jared Dudley.
Luis Scola is expected to make the start in place of O’Neal, and that will leave Hunter to ration the rest of the minutes at center and power forward between Markieff Morris, Hamed Haddadi and, potentially, Marcus Morris.
O’Neal has a strained calf to go with a stomach bug, which also serves as Dudley’s ailment.
Hunter remains unsure about a potential return prior to the end of the season for Gortat. The starting center has been out since March 6 with a Lisfranc sprain to the arch of his right foot.
“I don’t know where he’s at with it, so I can’t really speak about it other than saying we wish he was here,” Hunter said. “But we have to go with what we got; that’s the way it is.”
Williams Returns Again
When the Suns beat Minnesota in late February it was former Arizona Wildcats standout Derrick Williams who carried the Timberwolves offensively.
Rubio was having an off night shooting, and Williams filled the void with 21 points on 8-of-16 shooting to go with 12 rebounds.
A Williams three-pointer with just 30 seconds left in overtime gave Minnesota one final chance at the win, but the Suns defense made Alexey Shved's layup just difficult enough to force the miss and preserve a Phoenix win.