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Preview: Phoenix Suns in rare must-win November home game versus Nets

A quick look over the Phoenix Suns’ schedule through the end of November shows it’s going to be rough sledding ahead. Following tonight’s tilt versus the Brooklyn Nets, Phoenix will face eight likely playoff teams, barring injury, over their next nine games.

These types of matchups are ones the Suns have to win if they hope to take the next steps forward in their overall team development. With how talented this Suns roster is on the surface, they should be able to beat up on lottery-bound teams in the Eastern Conference.

Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton will be the two best players on the court tonight, so they should be able to feast. However, Ayton’s battle with Jarrett Allen is no pushover. Allen is one of my favorite young bigs to watch, a guy who I believe is on his way to being a future Defensive Player of the Year.

Without further ado, let’s dive into Suns-Nets, an equally contested bout on its way to Talking Stick Resort Arena.

Probable starters:

Suns – Isaiah Canaan, Devin Booker, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Deandre Ayton

Nets – D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Jared Dudley, Jarrett Allen

Note: T.J. Warren is questionable with lower back spasms

Suns

OffRtg: 102.2 (29th), DefRtg: 114.0 (T26th), NetRtg: -11.8 (30th)

It’s been apparent since Booker returned to the starting lineup he’s not back to full strength after a strained hamstring. On Sunday, he was still captain clutch, though. Booker leads the league in fourth quarter scoring at 9.8 points per game. It’s rare to find a closer, but Booker is already that, at age 22. I can’t imagine what his offensive package will be like five years from now, because the Suns’ franchise star looks well on his way to winning multiple scoring titles at this rate.

For Phoenix to upend Brooklyn, they will need Booker to put up points, but also facilitate in a smart manner. Turnovers have been an issue for Booker, and Brooklyn’s opportunistic and aggressive defense could throw him different challenges throughout.

Yet head coach Igor Kokoskov’s X-factor is Mikal Bridges. It’s a fair debate whether Bridges is already the Suns’ third-best player. He plays within himself, rarely makes mistakes, and has a consistent two-way impact. It will be interesting to see how Kokoskov juggles his rotation if Warren is back from his back spasms. Either way, Bridges needs to see at least 20-25 minutes from here on out, with opportunity to earn even more time.

The one player who could be most affected by Bridges’ recent performance is Josh Jackson. Phoenix’s No. 4 pick in 2017 only played 13 minutes, a minutes load which could be consistent for him once Warren is back. He has been their worst wing, and it hasn’t been close. Take a glance at how Jackson, Bridges, and Warren compare below, via Basketball-Reference:

The longer the Suns have no point guard and Bridges continues to show he’s ready, I continue to believe moving one of these other wings for a long-term answer at point guard could quickly become reality. The answer may not come for a few months, but nonetheless, it will be interesting to monitor.

This Suns roster is not short on top-flight prospects filled with potential, but many of these tough decisions seem ready to happen soon. Booker is ready to taste the playoffs by 2020, and I think, if Phoenix plays their cards smart over the next year, it could happen.

Against a team nearly equal on paper, Booker needs to show out and flex his muscles over a roster that doesn’t have a player like him.

Nets

OffRtg: 110.1 (13th), DefRtg: 111.2 (22nd), NetRtg: -1.1 (17th)

Brooklyn is such an interesting team to follow from the outside looking in. General manager Sean Marks has done a marvelous job accumulating young talent with little to no assets. After arriving with nothing, Brooklyn now has a core led by LeVert, Allen, and Russell. On top of that, they have flexibility to sign two max free agents this upcoming summer.

From the Suns’ perspective, though, Brooklyn’s point guard situation should be followed with a watchful eye until the trade deadline. As Nets Daily’s Anthony Puccio told me on Locked On Suns yesterday, Dinwiddie embodies what the Nets are: tough, hard-nosed guys who will do anything to win. It’s quite possible that Marks and Co. could favor Dinwiddie over Russell, making the former No. 3 pick in the 2015 Draft available in trade discussions.

Theoretically, a deal for Dinwiddie or Russell makes sense for a team like Phoenix. According to a league source, one of the names Phoenix inquired on right before the regular season was Dinwiddie. Circling back on the 6’6” guard out of Colorado, if Brooklyn chooses not to re-sign him, it would be intriguing, to pair a bigger guard with Booker. Russell makes obvious sense not only because he’s a high-upside swing, but he’s also very close with Booker.

Let’s talk about Allen for a moment, because I believe his potential is enormous. He honestly could be better in a few years than Rudy Gobert. Allen is already more functional scoring and passing than Gobert, so he could be a homegrown unicorn-type big who takes over here soon. If I was in the Nets’ front office, I would be vouching hard to build around Allen as a main centerpiece.

The big question for Brooklyn, at least for me, is will they be buyers or sellers at February’s trade deadline? The young core has to take steps forward, or we could see the forward-thinking Nets pivot towards win-now veterans to place around Allen and LeVert over the next year.

Brooklyn also brings back former fan-favorite Jared Dudley, who has started every game so far for Brooklyn. Lacking true stretch bigs, Dudley has filled the void and been a nice combo next to Allen before being repalced by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Dudley was a joy to talk to last season, and I know the media in Brooklyn is already raving about the same with him.

Prediction

I get the feeling this game is not only going to be competitive, but one that goes into overtime. Phoenix and Brooklyn are evenly matched across the board, and this will be a contest in which studs— Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Caris LeVert, and Jarrett Allen — will have to shine.

Expect to see a strong outing from Booker, a stat line like 27-4-7 with great efficiency, with solid secondary performances via Ayton and Bridges to help propel them to a win late.

The Suns have what the Nets don’t: Devin Booker, a budding superstar who relishes clutch situations.

Suns 121, Nets 118

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