Suns Tip Off Preseason Against Maccabi Haifa

After beating up on each other for nearly a week, the Suns welcome a different opponent in Israeli powerhouse Maccabi Haifa on Monday night in their 2013 preseason opener.

Phoenix will hope to show the benefits of being two days removed from training at over 7,000 feet of altitude in Flagstaff, a setting Head Coach Jeff Hornacek chose in hopes of preparing the team for his fast-paced offense. The Suns showed glimpses of adapting at Saturday's intrasquad scrimmage, which saw the Black Team score 33 points in the first 10-minute quarter.

Maccabi Haifa should prove to be a good first test against a different opponent. They were the Israeli Basketball Super League champions last season, going 44-27 and averaging the second-most points per game in that league (82.4 ppg in 40-minute contests).

"Everyone's excited to finally get going," Hornacek said. "They've been beating up on each other these last five days, we had a scrimmage the other day," Hornacek said. "It's always nice to go against another team. European teams traditionally play hard, they play well together as a team. They're typically pretty decent shooters, so they're teams that, if you don't come in focused to play and play like it like it's another NBA team, you could lose."

The club returns its top scorer from last season in Donta Smith. The one-time Atlanta Hawk put up 16.0 points, 5.2 assists, 5.1 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game a year ago before upping all four of those averages in nine postseason games.

Haifa also boasts 22-year-old Sherwood Brown, one of the standouts from Florida Gulf Coast's odds-defying NCAA Tournament run earlier this year. The then-senior's effort was rewarded with an AP All-America Honorable Mention, as well as the Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year.

KEY MATCHUP

Donta Smith vs. the Suns' small forward committee. The "three" spot offered one of the most intriguing position battles in training camp. P.J. Tucker, Gerald Green and Marcus Morris were all in the mix heading up to Flagstaff, and the trio played well enough to keep the decision difficult by the time they left.

"[Smith] played in the league, so he's a guy that, I'm sure like a lot of these guys, wants to try to prove something," Hornacek said. "They're going to come out here and play like it's a big game for them. Our guys had better have that focus. Especially that three spot, between P.J. and Marcus and Gerald, someone's going to have to really guard the guy."

All three will have their respective abilities tested against Smith, who makes for a lethal threat on both ends of the court. Phoenix's troika of wings has the size to match up on paper, but executing against his theft-ready instincts on one end and containing him on the other is a double-test that should only help the Suns figure more about their mix at that position.

OPPONENT X-FACTOR

Change. Maccabi Haifa lost four rotation players and brings in a new head coach in journeyman Danny Franco. Even the addition of highly regarded point guard Moran Roth (formerly of perennial contender Maccabi Tel Aviv) could have mixed results with a new cast and new offensive system.

Sound familiar? Expect both teams to do plenty of experimenting with all the "new" going on.

FINAL THOUGHT

Maccabi Haifa plays physical, but they are severely undersized with just one player listed taller than 6-9. Suns forward P.J. Tucker, who played in Israel before breaking through in the NBA with the Suns, remembers well the style of play Phoenix's opponent will bring to U.S. Airways Center.

"It's a different style of play," Tucker said. "They like to play athletic, smaller forwards that can do a lot of things."

While this will give a decided advantage to the Suns' stable-full of big men, don't be shocked to see Hornacek take advantage of this opportunity to test out some small-ball lineups. Phoenix's new head coach did plenty of that in the NBA Summer League, and there's little reason to think more of the same won't happen in the preseason.