10:00 PM EST – Line: Suns -4.5, Over/Under: 220
The top two seeds out West clash tonight with an opportunity for upheaval as the Phoenix Suns play host to the Utah Jazz from Phoenix Suns Arena in Phoenix, Arizona. From the beginning of the 2020-2021 campaign, the Jazz (45-17, 1st in Western Conference) have sat atop not just the Western Conference but the National Basketball Association as a whole, though with a loss tonight they could finally see their grip on the best record in the league slip through their collective fingers. Coming into this matchup, only a single game separates these teams in the standings, with Phoenix holding the tiebreaker on the strength of winning each of their previous two meetings; back on New Year’s Eve in Salt Lake City (Head Coach) Quin Snyder’s charges fell in a 106-95 affair before coming up short in a 117-113 overtime battle in the Valley of the Sun. The problem has been one of the most prolific three-point shooting teams in the history of the league has struggled to throw the basketball into the ocean, netting a scant 29.5% of their attempts against Phoenix, with their 11.5 triples standing as the fewest made on average against any single opponent this season. How uncharacteristic is this, you ask? On the season, the Jazz lead the NBA in both three-pointers made (17.0) and attempted (43.5), while knocking down a scorching 39.1% of their attempts (3rd Overall) with nearly half of their overall attempts from the field coming from beyond the arc (49.2%). Seven different players shoot over 37.0% from downtown, with just as many draining over ninety triples, including four netting 150 or more. A healthy Bojan Bogdanovic (15.7 PTS, 42.0% FG, 38.1% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 1.9 AST, 0.6 STL, 12.9 PER) has certainly improved this facet of the attack after the Croatian International missed the team’s trek through the Bubble last season with a broken wrist. The 31-year old has brought excellent spacing at the Forward position, shooting 38.1% from long range en route to posting 15.7 points per game. (Point Guard) Jordan Clarkson (17.5 PTS, 42.0% FG, 34.7% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 2.3 AST, 0.9 STL, 16.5 PER) has also thrived, though his exploits have come off the bench where he has enjoyed a career campaign averaging personal-bests in points (17.5) and three-pointers (175). And then there is (All-Star Guard) Donovan Mitchell (26.4 PTS, 43.8% FG, 38.6% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 5.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 21.3 PER), who has ascended into stardom this season, with the 24-year old posting career-highs in scoring (26.4), three-point percentage (38.6%), rebounds (4.4), and assists (5.2), along with a team-high 178 treys. The backcourt partnership formed between he and (veteran Point Guard) Mike Conley (16.4 PTS, 44.6% FG, 40.7% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.4 STL, 19.1 PER) has helped accelerate his development, with the veteran’s presence allowing him to play off the ball more than he did last year as the 33-year old struggled to acclimate himself to his new surroundings. This season though there have been no issues for Conley, who quite frankly hasn’t looked this good in about four years before injuries hastened his exit in Memphis; his field foal percentage (44.6%) and three-point percentage (40.7%) are the highest since the 2016-2017 campaign, with his scoring average (16.4) a strong improvement over his first season with the club. With all that said, as prolific as Utah has been on the offensive end of the hardwood, the biggest reason for the sustained success is that they haven’t sacrificed anything on the defensive end, and that fact can be traced to one man, Rudy Gobert (14.4 PTS, 67.7% FG, 13.4 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.5 STL, 2.8 BLK, 23.6 PER). The towering French International has clearly made good on the mammoth contract extension (5-years/$205 million) that the franchise invested in him in the Offseason, sealing off the paint singlehandedly. Needless to say, this is huge for a side that has routinely endeavored to flood the court with shooters, making it more important that someone covers the painted area which is greater than in most cases due to all the spacing created by said snipers. This season, the Jazz have allowed just 107.2 points (4th Overall) on 44.5% shooting from the field (2nd Overall), including a league-low 50.1% from within the arc (1st Overall) and 34.0% beyond it (2nd Overall), along with 48.3 rebounds (1st Overall), and yielding just 22.1 assists (1st Overall). Furthermore, they don’t foul their opponents, relinquishing a free-throw/ field goal attempt ratio of just 16.2% (2nd Overall), leading to 19.4 free-throw attempts per game for the opposition (4th Overall). The two-time Defensive Player of the Year looks like he’s on his way towards claiming a third trophy, matching a career-best 7.4% block percentage, while leading the Association in Defensive Win Shares (4.5).
“I’m probably in the minority, but I thought we played well (Monday) night and didn’t shoot well… Tonight we played well in a different way. The ball moved. We were solid tonight. Obviously we made shots.”Quin Snyder on the Jazz’s franchise-best 154 points on 64.0% shooting and 24-of-41 from downtown (58.5%), which also marked season-highs in a 154-104 romp over the hapless Kings on Wednesday Night.
When we last saw the Jazz, they managed to snap a season-high two-game losing streak (to the Minnesota Timberwolves, no less) by completely obliterating the Sacramento Kings in a 154-104 rout from Northern California on Wednesday Night. With the aforementioned Mitchell continuing to sit out with a sprained ankle and Conley also sitting out due to a tender hamstring, Utah showed no issues in burying their opponent without their leading scorer, shattering their previous season-high for points scored (134). Snyder’s troops shot an insane 64.0% from the field, including 24-of-41 from beyond the arc (58.5%), both of which marked season-highs as well. This downpour of threes was ridiculous on many accounts, with the visitors outscoring the hosts by a staggering FIFTY-ONE points in that regard, as nine different players knocked down a triple, with five of them accounting for three or more. Georges Niang (6.3 PTS, 43.7% FG, 42.1% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 0.8 AST, 11.1 PER) caught fire on 5-of-7 shooting from the perimeter (71.4%) en route to nineteen points, while the aforementioned Clarkson added twenty-three off the bench with 4-of-7 shooting from downtown (57.1%). Bogdanovic, who was only 1-of-5 from three (20.0%), totaled a team-best twenty-four points on 7-of-16 shooting overall (43.8%), though did much of his work from the charity stripe with 9-of-10 free-throws (90.0%). Of course, Gobert may not contribute to their torrid shooting, but his impact was felt all over the hardwood, totaling twelve points, ten rebounds, and five blocks, keying a defense that relegated the Kings to just 7-of-21 shooting from long-range (33.3%), and a sizable rebounding margin of Plus-23. This affair got out of control in the Second Quarter, where the Jazz would go on to outscore the home side 46-17, with their prowess from the perimeter serving as the proverbial sledgehammer; Utah drained 8-of-11 attempts from three (72.7%) during the period in comparison to a scant 1-of-4 for Sacramento (25.0%), with Niang connecting on all four of his shots from distance. Leading by as many as thirty-two points, Snyder would empty his bench early, with a number of less-heralded players gaining the opportunity to make an impression; (veteran Forward) Derrick Favors (5.5 PTS, 62.3% FG, 5.6 REB, 0.7 AST, 0.5 STL, 1.1 BLK, 19.6 PER), who returned to the franchise after a season away in the Big Easy, put forth eight points, eleven rebounds and a pair of blocks in just over twelve minutes of action, while the seldom-used duo of Jarrell Brantley (2.4 PTS, 51.3% FG, 43.5% 3FG, 1.0 REB, 17.3 PER) and Matt Thomas (4.0 PTS, 42.5% FG, 25.0% 3FG, 1.2 REB, 0.5 AST, 8.7 PER) accounted for a combined thirty points on a near-perfect 12-of-13 shooting from the field (92.3%).
Meanwhile, after over a decade the Suns (44-18, 2nd in Western Conference) are indeed returning to the Playoffs, though at this point there is a possibility that they could enter the Postseason as not only the top seed in the West but the own homecourt throughout the Playoffs. Between February and Mid-April, Phoenix was arguably the most impressive team in the Association, winning all but seven of their thirty-seven contests during that period, vaulting them within striking distance of their opponent tonight for top honors within the conference; (Head Coach) Monty Williams’ side are in a very interesting situation; trailing Utah by just one game in the standings, this group holds the tiebreaker in the event that they finish the Regular Season on equal footing, besting them in each of their previous two meetings earlier this year. They’ve been largely successful against a team that most of the league has struggled mightily against, by slowing down the tempo and limiting the damage from the perimeter; the Suns are one of the only teams to actually outscore the Jazz from downtown this season, relegating them to an average of just 11.5 makes in those two matchups. When they met back on December 31st in Salt Lake City, Williams’ troops outscored them by fifteen points in this regard, and in the rubber match on April 7th they stood square at eleven treys apiece, with the visitors relegated to a dismal 11-of-44 attempts (25.0%) which is well below their season figure. Though it seems like this evolution in the desert has taken place overnight, it hasn’t, for Phoenix showed signs of what they could potentially be during the Bubble last Summer, for they were the only team to win all eight of their seeding games, narrowly missing out on the Postseason as a result. This acceleration though can all be drawn towards the addition of one man: Chris Paul (16.2 PTS, 49.3% FG, 38.5% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 8.7 AST, 1.4 STL, 20.8 PER). Even at the age of thirty-five, the nine-time All-NBA Point Guard has proven to have plenty left in the proverbial tank, accelerating the development of a young core of players that otherwise may have been lost without him. In his lone season with the Oklahoma City Thunder last season, Paul lifted what was expected to be a lottery team to the middle of the playoff field, and a Game Seven away from advancing to the Second Round. Simply put, this is guy is bonafide winner, for with Wednesday Night’s victory over the Clippers (more on that shortly) clinching a spot in the Playoffs, Paul will now be heading to the Postseason for the eleventh consecutive year, doing so with his fifth different franchise. It’s amazing what a veteran floor general can do for a team’s development, and even more so when said floor general is a future Hall of Famer; Phoenix ranks in the top-ten in points scored (114.3) and allowed (108.3), slowing down the tempo en route to becoming a far more efficient attack shooting 48.8% from the field (3rd Overall), including 56.2% from within the arc (2nd Overall) and 37.4% beyond it (9th Overall), dishing out 26.9 assists (6th Overall) in comparison to committing just 12.9 turnovers per game (5th Overall). Benefitting from his presence has been his fellow Backcourt mate, Devin Booker (25.4 PTS, 48.3% FG, 34.5% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 4.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 19.0 PER), who has thrived alongside a veteran playmaker such as Paul; the young shooter has been afforded the luxury of playing off the basketball far more than in previous years, which has led to a fresher weapon that can really do some damage from the perimeter. In addition to Booker’s improvement, (third-year Swingman) Mikal Bridges (13.1 PTS, 52.8% FG, 40.1% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.9 BLK, 15.7 PER) has developed into one of the better 3 & D players in the league, while former No. One Overall Pick, DeAndre Ayton (14.8 PTS, 62.0% FG, 10.7 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.1 BLK, 20.4 PER), is beginning to make good on his lofty his potential. Furthermore, (sharpshooting Forward) Cameron Johnson (9.8 PTS, 43.3% FG, 36.3% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 12.3 PER), has emerged as threat from the perimeter, while (journeyman Forward) Jae Crowder (9.8 PTS, 40.1% FG, 38.1% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 11.6 PER) has brought a veteran presence to the Frontcourt.
“We are not satisfied, we’re not settling… We feel like we’re just scratching the surface. Our players have worked their tails off, they’ve done everything I’ve asked them to do… I’m just happy for them.”Monty Williams on the Suns 109-101 victory over the Clippers, which clinched a Playoff Birth for the franchise for the first time in eleven years.
When we last saw the Suns, they managed to pull themselves out of this miniature rut that they had been in splitting their previous six games, earning a huge 109-101 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday Night. This was one notable for a variety of reasons, folks, for not only did Phoenix clinch their long-awaited return to the Playoffs with this win, but they also put some precious distance between themselves and Los Angeles who coming into this affair trailed them by only a single game in the standings, and owned the tiebreaker after winning the previous two meetings. With the Clippers missing the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka, and Patrick Beverley, and the Suns without Forwards, Dario Saric (9.1 PTS, 45.1% FG, 33.9% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.6 STL, 14.6 PER) and the aforementioned Crowder, this affair had the feel of a Playoff battle, with the two sides trading blows throughout the night. Though they never trailed, the hosts clung to a 93-92 advantage midway through the Fourth Quarter, only for Paul to roll up sleeves and get down to business; the veteran floor general scored three consecutive difficult shots en route to finishing with twenty-eight points on a stellar 10-of-15 shooting from the floor (66.7%), including 4-of-8 from three (50.0%), along with three rebounds, ten assists, and a trifecta of steals as the 5,917 fans in attendance chanted MVP at the conclusion of the contest. Fifteen of Paul’s point total would come in the final stanza, where Phoenix would pull away. In the end, the home side shot 47.35 from the field, including 13-of-37 from beyond the arc (35.1%), registering twenty-three assists in comparison to committing just ten turnovers, while outrebounding the visiting side 45-36. Booker finished with twenty-one points on 9-of-19 shooting (47.4%), six rebounds and three assists, while the bench received a boost from the likes of Frank Kaminnsky (6.3 PTS, 47.4% FG, 40.0% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 1.5 AST, 16.2 PER) and Cameron Payne (7.5 PTS, 46.6% FG, 40.9% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 3.6 AST, 0.6 STL, 15.9 PER), who combined for twenty-eight points 12-of-22 shooting (54.5%), with thirteen of the former’s fifteen points coming in the First Half. If the Suns are to leap past the Jazz for first in the West, they will face difficulty in maintaining it for the rest of their schedule is far from easy, with seven of their final nine games on the road, with five consecutive games against fellow Western Playoff foes to close things out.