The Thanksgiving break for the NBA is upon us and the Western Conference has been highly competitive, especially at the top. The top 10 teams in the Western Conference are separated by just two games.
As teams have fully settled into their rotations, adapted to injuries and gotten used to new coaching, look for separation to begin as teams will go from contenders to pretenders.
The Phoenix Suns meanwhile sit atop the Western Conference tied with what might be 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 after the unfortunate injury to PF Cam Johnson and the early shooting slump/injury situation with PG Chris Paul.
Statistically the Suns rank near the top in many advanced and general stats. Phoenix ranks 3rd in offensive rating (OFFRTG), 6th in defensive rating (DEFRTG) and 2nd in net rating (NETRTG).
The Suns are exactly where they want to be and playing the brand of basketball Head Coach Monty Williams expects them to play.
Assuming the Suns remain healthy and continue to play to their capable level, the playoffs will be highly entertaining with two-thirds of the Western Conference teams this close to each other.
Let’s take a look at how the Suns stack up against some of the top teams so far this season in the Western Conference.
The Utah Jazz is experiencing phenomenal seasons from Lauri Markkanen and Jordan Clarkson. Both players were expected to play well for the Jazz, but a breakout year from both have the Jazz playing well above the media’s expectations.
The Suns have played the Jazz once this season in Salt Lake City in a losing effort 134-133. A close matchup between the two, the Suns and Jazz are evenly matched as far as the starting five goes. Both teams have a veteran primary ball handler in Mike Conley and Chris Paul.
Both teams have a legitimate scoring threat in Lauri Markkanen (22.0 PPG) and Devin Booker (27.4 PPG). Both teams have shooting threats from 3 in Lauri Markkanen (53.9%), Malik Beasley (43.8%) and Devin Booker (47.3%), Mikel Bridges (47.4%).
What the Jazz lack, the Suns can exploit especially in the playoffs is size in the paint. Utah Jazz Center Kelly Olynyk and Power Forward Jarred Vanderbilt will have a tough time against the Suns' size and length.
Expect post entries left and right for Ayton and Craig. Also expect the pick and roll game of Booker and Ayton, like we have seen time and time again these past couple year, to be in full effect come playoff time. Jazz rank dead last in the league for opponents’ points in the paint, meaning the Suns will put that 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 if Lauri Markkanen can keep pace with Devin Booker in the points column.
New Orleans Pelicans
Another team that is perhaps playing better than expected has been the Pelicans. A young team out in New Orleans has them right on par to finish atop the west with the Suns. Phoenix took care of the Pelicans 124-111 in their one matchup thus 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 the late emergence of Zion Williamson in the past few games could be a precursor for what to expect offensively come playoffs.
The Pelicans, unlike the Jazz have plenty of power and size at the 4 and 5 positions. PF Zion Williamson and Center Jonas Valanciunas have been an effective duo all year long. Williamson leads all Pelican players with 23.1 PPG and Valanciunas has been cleaning 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 a fast break offensive set.
The key to this matchup will be interior defense from the Suns. Pelicans rank 23rd in the league in 3-point attempts (3PA).
The likes of Ayton, Landale and Biyombo will have to make their presence felt and force the Pelicans to shoot from the perimeter. On the offensive side of the ball, expect Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges to put the ball on the floor and take it to the paint to try and get some of the bigs of New Orleans in foul trouble early.
The Denver Nuggets are playing on-brand basketball for a team that has championship contending expectations. The Nuggets have a solidified group now that can make a serious push for The Finals with an interesting addition of Aaron Gordon.
The maturity of Michael Porter Jr. has been a great addition to a team with the back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic. Perhaps the most versatile player in the league, Jokic leads the Nuggets in all three main categories. Jokic is averaging 22.7 PPG, 9.5 REB and 9.0 AST. The Nuggets have a deep and talented roster whose offense runs through Jokic.
Denver is also comfortable playing outside the Mile High City with a road record of 7-5 so far.
The Suns have yet to play the Nuggets during the regular season, but a huge matchup on Christmas Day will set up these two squads. The starters for the Nuggets contain shooting and defense.
The Suns have a slight height advantage in the paint but may struggle to find a matchup defensively for Michael Porter Jr.’s height and athleticism. One thing to look out for is the turnover battle. Nuggets have been somewhat careless with the ball to begin the year (on average 15.8 turnovers per 100 possessions).
A key matchup to watch will be Jamal Murray vs. Devin Booker. Two of the league’s best off the dribble scorers, the back and forth between the two former Kentucky Wildcats will be electric for the NBA if these two meet in the playoffs.
The Nuggets are dealing with some minor injuries at the moment but expect them to be ready to go towards the end of the year.
The Suns have had a decent year to begin and will continue to look for quality play from their players. Fans have been a big factor as well this year, as the Suns claim the best home record at 9-1.
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