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Nets begin Black History Month in Phoenix vs. Suns

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Minnesota Timberwolves v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Almost had it, but almost doesn’t count. The Brooklyn Nets opened up their five game road trip on Saturday night against the Golden State Warriors. It looked like they were on the verge of getting blown out, but they fought back and had a great chance of pulling off the upset late. However, things didn’t go their way and they wound up taking a tough, tough loss. The L was their fourth in a row and caused them to drop to sixth in the increasingly crowded Eastern Conference standings.

The opponent tonight is the best team in the NBA. The Phoenix Suns have built off their 2021 NBA Finals appearance and find themselves atop the Western Conference standings as we head into the All Star Break. They played host to the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday night and came away with the win late. They’ve pushed their latest winning streak to ten in a row.

Where to follow the game

YES Network for the locals, TNT on TV for the out of towners. WFAN on radio. Late night affair so the party’s getting started after 10 p.m.

Injuries

Kevin Durant is out. Joe Harris is out. James Harden’s hamstring is fine, but he missed Saturday night’s game with a right hand strain. He’s listed as questionable for tonight’s contest, but after he put in a full practice Monday, the Nets are optimistic about his return. LaMarcus Aldridge sprained his ankle in the fourth quarter and had to leave the game. Post-game, he was seen walking out of the Chase Center in crutches. He’s getting an MRI done and will be missing this game. Kyrie Irving is eligible.

Dario Saric is out with a right ACL tear. Abdel Nader is out with a right knee injury. Cameron Payne is out with a right wrist sprain. Frank Kaminsky is out with a stress reaction in his right knee. DeAndre Ayton has been dealing with an ankle injury since January 16 is out for tonight’s contest. Jae Crowder missed Sunday’s game with a wrist injury. He’ll be out tonight as well. Former Net Landry Shamet left Sunday’s game with a right ankle sprain and will miss the game.

The game

Phoenix won the first meeting in November.

With Aldridge out, the Nets big man room is down to Blake Griffin, Nic Claxton, and DayRon Sharpe. Claxton got the start on Saturday and was pretty decent in his 17 minutes of playing time. Griffin was on the court late and did a great job managing switches, contesting shots, and making intelligent plays. With all the injuries the Nets are dealing with, everybody has to do a little bit more if they want to get back to the top of the East.

The Suns have managed Ayton’s absence reasonably well. They picked up Bismack Biyombo in free agency and he’s been a beast on the boards for the Suns. Jalen Smith has started to live up to his potential, but his days in Phoenix might be numbered as various teams are looking to acquire the 21 year old big man.

Kessler Edwards did a great job chasing Steph Curry around, so tonight he gets the pleasure of chasing around another great scorer. Devin Booker is averaging 25 points a night and has turned into the franchise player that will keep the Suns in contention for many years to come. Book can score at all three levels, is someone who can heat up and rain down buckets at a moment’s notice, and doesn’t buckle under pressure. In the first meeting, he burned the Nets’ drop pick and roll coverage. The Warriors did the same in the first meeting, but Brooklyn changed things up and were a lot better the second time around. We’ll see if they can replicate that success tonight.

With the injuries affecting the Suns at the moment, they might look to make a move to shore up the roster for the stretch run by the February 10 trading deadline. Over at Bright Side of the Sun, Rod Argent spoke about that possibility and said:

It all depends on what opportunities present themselves though. If James Jones sees an opportunity to improve the team by moving players that are presently just taking up roster space, I expect him to do it. But if there’s no clear benefit to the team, he may wind up doing nothing with any of them.

Sounds pretty similar to what’s going on here in Brooklyn.

February 1 is the start of free agency in the WNBA, and the New York Liberty have already signed Chicago Sky big, Stefanie Dolson. The Phoenix Mercury saw their long time head coach, Sandy Brondello, move to Brooklyn to coach the Liberty and wound up hiring Vanessa Nygaard to coach the 2021 Finals runner-up. The Mercs doesn’t have much salary cap room to work with, but stranger things have happened and have already been linked to former All Star, Tina Charles. We’ll be on top of all the Liberty news as it comes down the timeline.

Both teams will do plenty of work in the midrange area tonight. The Suns are second in attempts and third in efficiency while the Nets are third in attempts and first in efficiency. The best offenses use every part of the court and make the most out of the possessions they have. They also do well to limit turnovers, which is something Brooklyn wasn’t able to do in their first meeting against Phoenix.

The Suns coaching staff will be heading to Cleveland for the All Star Game, and Mikal Bridges should be joining them there as well. Bridges has been an ace defender for the Suns and usually takes on the assignment of guarding the other team’s best perimeter player each night. He’s an integral part of the Suns offensive attack and is a smart and timely cutter.

If Harden is back, it will give the Nets another plus shot creator and ball handler. Having Harden on the court would allow for the Nets to have at least one member of the Big Three on the court at all times and a downhill threat like Harden will open things up for the rest of the Nets. Patty Mills will slide down a role and have fewer ballhandling responsibilities on his shoulders. Mills does a decent job in orchestrating an offense, but his strengths lie in other areas.

Player to watch: Chris Paul

Who’s the man with the master plan? CP3 is putting together another banner season and has the Suns operating on all cylinders. His usage rate is at the lowest clip of his career, but it doesn’t matter as he’s the league leader in assists this season. Paul can still take a game over late with his shot and his ability to constantly get to his spots makes him a tough matchup for the best teams in the league. The Suns’ backup point guard situation is a bit murky right now and Paul has played 36+ minutes in each of the last six games. Finding him some pockets of rest now and getting a capable backup for the regular season will keep Paul fresh for the playoff chase.

Off the court, Paul has continued the work of uplifting HBCUs across the USA. Paul has helped bring a lot of resources and visibility to HBCUs and should be commended for it.

Kyrie Irving is getting his rhythm back. Irving was masterful on Saturday night as his 32 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists led the way for Brooklyn. He turned up in the second half and dropped a bevy of spellbinding moves and finishes as he went around and through a tough Warriors defense. He got to the free throw line 12 times and followed up on previous comments of being more aggressive and attacking the basket more. Having Irving back will help during this difficult stretch and for a team that’s dealt with its share of blows this year, they’ll need Irving playing at his best to keep them afloat.

Rising Stars to be named

The 12 rookies and 12 sophomores selected to play in the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend will be announced Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET. You’d think two Nets rookies stand a good chance to be among 12: Kessler Edwards, who’s started 10 straight games as Steve Nash’s 3-and-D wing, and Cam Thomas, who had four 20+ point games in January.

From the Vault

Jessica Watkins will be the first Black woman to be in space for a long term mission. Let’s take it back and big up the first Black woman to travel into space, Mae Jemison!

More reading: Bright Side of the Sun