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Suns’ uneven opening schedule ends with 3 games in 4 days out East

Phoenix Suns forward Jae Crowder, left, congratulates center Deandre Ayton, who scored and was fouled by Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The schedules for all NBA teams were going to be a bit odd this season but the Phoenix Suns’ especially has been rather disjointed to open the year.

The Suns had a back-to-back slate of one game at home followed by two on the road. After the home opener, that was five games in seven days. They got to refresh with two games over six days before the current stretch of three road games in four days against the Eastern Conference: Detroit on Friday, Indiana on Saturday and Washington on Monday.

That’ll be 11 games in. The Suns won’t have another road back-to-back until mid-February and that is preceded by a seven-game homestand. The run after Monday will go three games at home, two on the road, four at home, three on the road and then those seven at home.

Everything lines up as normally as it could for the month-plus after Monday from a games and travel standpoint. The upcoming road swing isn’t necessarily critical after a 6-2 start, but grabbing two or three victories would put them in a position to really pile up wins. Suns point guard Chris Paul has used that phrasing.

“It’s a season where 7-10 are going to be playing for a playoff spot, so with the team that we have, we’re just trying to pile up as many wins as possible,” he said after Wednesday’s victory against the Toronto Raptors.

After the seven-game homestand that’s the longest of the first-half schedule, the Suns will be 33 games in, nearly halfway through. They could get some serious leg work in right now to avoid play-in situations.

Yes, that’s how good the Suns are. We can start talking about this stuff! It’s OK, I swear! Take this leap with me!

They’re also good and versatile enough to capitalize on certain teams’ weaknesses, and every group has at least one. With that in mind, here’s a look at the three East matchups and the one key for each game.

(All statistics via NBA.com and Cleaning the Glass are prior to Thursday’s action)

Friday, Pistons (1-7): Offensive execution

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The poor Pistons play too hard to be 1-7 under a good coach in Dwane Casey but a lack of talent and continuity will do a great deal of damage to that.

They do two things very badly: making baskets and denying entry to the paint. That’s quite the recipe for a terrible team if I do say so myself.

Detroit is 29th in field goal percentage and is in the bottom-third of efficiency at the rim, in the midrange and beyond the three-point line. They’re a top-five team in second-chance points and top-10 in assist-to-turnover ratio — going back to the high energy under great coaching theme — but they can’t hit shots.

A hilariously sad defensive stat is the Pistons allow 12.1% of their shots in the short midrange area, the NBA’s best mark, but that’s because everyone just goes straight to the rim. An alarming 39.5% of opponents’ attempts are around the basket, 29th in the league. While the defense is certainly not good, teams are shooting nearly 41% from three-point range against it, so that’ll go down eventually and help them.

This is your classic “take care of business” game. Even if the Suns get in a shooting funk, as long as they’re competent defensively and executing offensively, they’ll cruise.

Phoenix is top-10 in potential assists per game. They’re 29th themselves in shots at the rim but that’s because of a strong drive-and-kick game that has them with by far the most corner threes generated, about 12 a game.

Individually, it’ll be a good bounce-back opportunity for Devin Booker in his hometown NBA arena. In four games there, Booker is shooting 62.9%, including a bonkers 24-of-33 (72.7%) on his two-pointers. Unless the Pistons put Jerami Grant on Booker, it’ll probably be either Josh Jackson or rookie Saddiq Bey guarding the All-Star.

Good luck with that!

Saturday, Pacers (6-2): Deandre Ayton

(AP Photo/Matt York)

Indiana looks great. The Pacers are 10th in offense and ninth in defense. They join the Lakers, Nets and Suns as the only four teams in the top-10 for both. Phoenix drawing them on the second game of a road back-to-back is brutal.

Go through the team statistics and it’s the Pacers in the top-half for just about everything. In particular, they’re first in shots created at the rim, second in assist-to-turnover ratio, second in points off turnovers and ninth in true shooting percentage. That’s the foundation for a great offense. Shoutout to former Suns assistant Nate Bjorkgren doing his thing as a head coach.

What Indiana is inadequate at, however, all points toward one guy on the Suns: Ayton.

The Pacers allow the least amount of three-point shots, by design. As a result, they’re dead-last in field goal attempts given up around the basket. That has them 25th in opposing points in the paint and opposing free throw rate. Despite starting two true bigs, the Pacers are 30th in rebounds per game as well.

Ayton being a real interior presence on both ends would prove to be substantial.

Indiana’s also getting an MVP-caliber season out of Domantas Sabonis thus far. The fifth-year big is averaging 20.8 points, 11.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game. He has given Ayton fits in the past, getting Ayton in foul trouble with his physicality out of the post.

The Suns will have to battle between Myles Turner and Sabonis. A lot of that will come down to Ayton holding up his end of the bargain.

Monday, Wizards (2-6): Matching up and rotating defensively

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

There aren’t many nights where teams will be able to match the Suns in backcourt talent but Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal sure will do it.

Washington is dreadful defensively but lethal offensively for the second straight year. You may associate Westbrook with an erratic style, which, fair! But the Wizards are sixth in turnover percentage. That’s significant because the Wizards are number one in pace and third in points off turnovers.

That means a lot of matching up in transition, making quick rotations off runouts and scrambling situations like that. If there’s one area to complain about the Suns’ defense that ranks sixth in defensive rating, it has been in those scenarios. Washington is a very good test for that as a team stylistically, but also with two high-level ball-handlers who earn lots of defensive gravity.

Matchup-wise, Mikal Bridges can only cover one of Beal or Westbrook. Booker and Paul will have to step up on the ball and deny penetration as much as possible. Washington takes the second-most midrange jumpers, so forcing those will be huge.

The Wizards’ defense, who are 29th in defensive rating, will present enough consistent opportunities for the Suns to jump on. That’ll take care of itself, especially if they can score off their defense.


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