As the dust settles after a somewhat underwhelming trade season, one team that was expected to make a move didn't, and another that normally stands pat shook things up at the last moment. Now both look to move forward with sights set on the postseason.
The Spurs and Suns didn't enter the year with similar expectations but, thanks to inspiring play by its young players and a smart coaching hire, Phoenix stands in an astonishing sixth place in the stacked Western Conference. With the Spurs clinging to a two-seed, it's possible that tonight's game is a preview of a first-round playoff matchup.
Breaking down the trade: Nando for Austin Daye
The Spurs made a trade that, while smart, isn't likely to impact the team this year.
It was thought that the Suns would move the expiring contract of Emeka Okafor before yesterday, with a potential trade with LA for Pau Gasol in the cards. But neither team pulled the trigger, and the Suns are moving forward with confidence in their young team – as well as a potential treasure trove of first round picks in this year's coveted draft. Meanwhile, the Spurs ended up trading away end-of-the-bench guard Nando de Colo for small forward Austin Daye. The move won't have huge implications on tonight's game, but it could help the team shore up some depth at the three-position, as well as give Coach Pop another young talent to develop.
San Antonio's come out of the All-Star break strong, with resume-building wins in Los Angeles against the Clippers and in Portland. The fact that they happened without Kawhi Leonard (hand) and Tony Parker (variety of maladies) makes the dual feat all the more impressive. Parker won't play tonight, but Leonard is expected to make his return after being out nearly a month with a fractured metatarsal. That'll give the Spurs a wing defender that can keep up with the young athletic Suns.
A big reason why the Spurs have been able to weather the storm is the backup point guard Patty Mills. The Boomer has been absolutely incredible as of late, providing a much-needed punch for the short-handed Spurs. In the month of February he's already scored 15 points or more seven times, including games of 29 and 25 points this week. Cory Joseph has been starting in Parker's place, but it's Mills who's been the real difference-maker.
Phoenix comes into this game having dealt with injuries of their own, namely to premier offseason acquisition Eric Bledsoe. Even with him in the picture, this team wasn't expected to go far – in fact, they were picked to finish last place in the West by almost everybody – but first-year coach Jeff Hornacek has managed to maximize the potential of his group of castaways and turn them into a playoff team. Hornacek is the front-runner to win this year's Coach of the Year award and, with Portland seemingly coming back to Earth, faces little competition.
Aside from Hornacek, much the credit for the team's success must also go to point guard Goran Dragic, who just missed out on being an All-Star in what's been a career year. Dragic is a creative playmaker who attacks the hoop with no fear. Making matters worse is his 40% shooting from beyond the arc, which allows Dragic to put constant pressure on opposing defenses.
The Spurs have won both meetings between the two teams so far this season, one home and one away. The last win in Phoenix was also without Tony, so it won't be anything new for the guys in silver and black. They seem to match up quite well against the Suns, who lack the interior defense to stop San Antonio.
Offensively, the Suns look to space the floor, with four starters that are able to knock down the three. Likely the player who benefits the most from this is journeyman Gerald Green, who's found a home in Phoenix after solid stints with the Nets and Pacers. The Spurs will want to limit Green's, as well as Dragic's open looks from distance if they're to contain Phoenix's 8th-ranked offense.
On the other end, San Antonio's offense may want to work from the inside out. Frye and Mason Plumlee shouldn't provide much resistance against Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw, which should open things up for the Spurs' perimeter players. It'll be interesting to see what Kawhi looks like in his first game back from injury, but I won't expect much consistency from his touch. What will be more encouraging is his ability to get up and down the floor and help keep the Suns' transition defense honest. At this point, Patty Mills is becoming less an X-factor and more a source of consistent offense, which is fantastic moving forward. Opponents have to be aware of his presence on the floor, which should bolster the potency of the Spurs bench.
By now, every team in the NBA knows that Phoenix is not to be trifled with – and Pop's not one to trifle (unless it's with the NBA itself). With this being the last game of the RRT, and with the team not playing again until next Wednesday, I expect San Antonio to not hold back tonight.
Matchup to watch: Marco and Manu vs. the Morris twins. Dragic will get his, I suspect, even against the 48-minute pressure of Joseph and Mills. If I knew what Kawhi's minute load would be, I'd be tempted to go with him versus a reborn Gerald Green. But the Spurs bench has been key in the wins against Phoenix, and if the Spurs can limit the dangerous but inconsistent Morris Bros, it should spell a W for the Good Guys.
Suns perspective can be found here: Bright Side Of The Sun.
Game Prediction: Spurs by 6.
Line in Vegas: Spurs by 1 1/2.
As always Tony must dominate Fisher, and NBA league pass is recommended for those who are willing to pony up the cash. Almost every Spurs game will be broadcast there, which is especially helpful for those of us who aren't in the San Antonio area. Please don't post links to illegal game feeds in the game thread. Links to illegal feeds are not permitted on SBNation, but you can probably find them out there on the internets if you're resourceful and desperate.
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