With the NBA on Thanksgiving break, the Western Conference has been hard fought, especially at the top. The Western Conference top 10 teams are separated by just two games.
When teams are fully settled into their rotations, acclimated to injuries, and acclimated to new coaching, look for a split to begin as teams move from contenders to contenders.
The Phoenix Suns, meanwhile, sit at the top of the Western Conference along with perhaps the most surprising team in the NBA this year, the Utah Jazz. At 11-6, the Suns are playing decent basketball considering the mad scramble following PF Cam Johnson’s unfortunate injury and the early shooting/injury situation with PG Chris Paul.
Statistically, the suns rank at the top in many extended and general statistics. Phoenix in 3rd placeapprox in the offensive rating (OFFRTG), 6th in defensive rating (DEFRTG) and 2nd in net rating (NETRTG).
The Suns are exactly where they want to be, playing the brand of basketball Head Coach Monty Williams expects of them.
Assuming the Suns stay healthy and continue to play at their competitive level, the playoffs will be very entertaining since two-thirds of the Western Conference teams are so close together.
Let’s take a look at how the Suns are stacking up against some of the top teams in the Western Conference this season.
The Utah Jazz enjoy phenomenal seasons from Lauri Markkanen and Jordan Clarkson. Both players were expected to play well for the Jazz, but a breakout year from both has the Jazz playing well above media expectations.
The Suns played the Jazz once this season in Salt Lake City, losing 134-133. A close matchup between the two, the Suns and Jazz are even as far as the starting five go. Both teams have experienced lead ball handlers in Mike Conley and Chris Paul.
Both teams have legitimate scoring threats in Lauri Markkanen (22.0 PPG) and Devin Booker (27.4 PPG). Both teams have shot threats of 3 in Lauri Markkanen (53.9%), Malik Beasley (43.8%) and Devin Booker (47.3%), Mikel Bridges (47.4%).
The Suns can take advantage of what the Jazz lack, especially in the playoffs: size in paint. Utah Jazz center Kelly Olynyk and power forward Jarred Vanderbilt will have a hard time against the Suns’ size and length.
Expect mail entries left and right for Ayton and Craig. Also, expect Booker and Ayton’s pick-and-roll game, as we’ve seen time and time again over the last few years, to be in full effect in playoff time. Jazz ranks last in the league for opponents’ points in the suit, which means the Suns will put this new extension to Deandre Ayton to good use if they expect to beat Utah in the playoffs.
Another key to this potential series will be whether Lauri Markkanen can match Devin Booker in the points column.
Pelicans from New Orleans
Another team that may be playing better than expected were the Pelicans. A young team in New Orleans has them on par to end up with the Suns at the Top of the West. Phoenix handled the Pelicans 124-111 in their only matchup so far this season, with Mikal Bridges leading all scorers with 27.
The Pelicans’ offense has been more of a lead-by-committee this season, but Zion Williamson’s late emergence in recent games could herald the offensive coming playoffs to come.
The Pelicans, unlike the Jazz, have plenty of power and size at positions 4 and 5. PF Zion Williamson and center Jonas Valanciunas have been an effective duo all year. Williamson leads all Pelican players with 23.1 PPG and Valanciunas cleaned up the glass leading the Pelicans with 9.3 REB. Both teams have dominant big men, but Zion Williamson’s athleticism could cause problems, especially in an attacking set with quick breaks.
The key to this clash will be central defense against the Suns. Pelicans Rank 23approx in the league in 3-point attempts (3PA).
Players like Ayton, Landale and Biyombo need to make their presence felt and force the pelicans to fire from the perimeter. On the offensive side of the ball, expect Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges to put the ball on the floor and paint it to try to put some of New Orleans’ greats in foul trouble early on.
The Denver Nuggets play branded basketball for a team that has championship expectations. The Nuggets now have a solid group that, with an interesting addition from Aaron Gordon, can make a serious boost for The Finals.
Michael Porter Jr.’s maturity has been a great addition to a team featuring back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic. Perhaps the most versatile player in the league, Jokic leads the Nuggets in all three main categories. Jokic averages 22.7 PPG, 9.5 REB and 9.0 AST. The Nuggets have a deep and talented roster with offense running through Jokic.
Denver is also playing outside of the Mile High City with a previous road record of 7-5.
The Suns have yet to play the Nuggets in the regular season, but a big matchup on Christmas Day will field those two rosters. The starters for the nuggets involve shooting and defending.
The Suns have a slight height advantage in the color but might struggle to find a defensive matchup for Michael Porter Jr.’s size and athleticism. One thing to watch out for is the sales battle. Nuggets were a little lazy with the ball earlier in the year (15.8 turnovers per 100 possessions on average).
An important duel to keep an eye on is Jamal Murray vs Devin Booker. Two of the league’s top dribbling scorers, the back-and-forth between the two former Kentucky Wildcats will be electric for the NBA when these two clash in the playoffs.
The Nuggets are struggling with some minor injuries at the moment but expect to be ready for action towards the end of the year.
The Suns had a decent start to the year and will continue to look for quality play from their players. Fans have also been an important factor this year as the Suns claim the best home record at 9-1.
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