Utah Jazz at Phoenix Suns: Keys to the Game

Oct 5, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Utah Jazz guard Dante Exum (11) makes a pass against Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) and center Alex Len (21) in the first half at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 5, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Utah Jazz guard Dante Exum (11) makes a pass against Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) and center Alex Len (21) in the first half at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns have given the Utah Jazz problems already this season and will likely put up a strong fight in the lone game of the series on their home court.

As I mentioned in my week preview piece from earlier today, the Utah Jazz are quite familiar with the Phoenix Suns as the teams have faced off twice already this season and have seen each other recently with both contests occurring last month. Each bout was closely contested but the Jazz found a way to squeeze out a victory each time to take a 2-0 series lead.

Tonight, however, they will take on the Suns for the first time this season within Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Arizona. Although Phoenix boasts just a 13-27 record, the worst mark in the Western Conference, they have played considerably better at home where they post an 8-11 record, and are coming off a huge win over the San Antonio Spurs in Mexico City on Saturday.

Plus they have to be a little upset about the Jazz already narrowly defeating them on two separate occasions, so I expect the Suns to come out with quite a bit of fire tonight (no pun intended). With that being said, this is a game that the Jazz can’t overlook if they hope to come away with a fourth straight victory.

Unfortunately, they’ll be without Rodney Hood who suffered a hyperextended knee in Saturday’s win over Orlando, so they’ll have some major adjustments to make with him sidelined as Hood has been a critical part of Utah’s offensive success.

However, Hood did in reality struggle in both contests against the Suns, so hopefully Utah can utilize the likes of Alec Burks, Joe Ingles and Joe Johnson to quickly fill the void left by Hood’s absence. They’ll certainly have to do so if they hope to win as well as take care of business in the following key areas.

Nov 27, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (right) and teammate Eric Bledsoe talk in the second half against the Denver Nuggets at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Nuggets defeated the Suns 118-114. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 27, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (right) and teammate Eric Bledsoe talk in the second half against the Denver Nuggets at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Nuggets defeated the Suns 118-114. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Key Match-up – Alec Burks and Devin Booker

Although it still hasn’t been officially announced who will start in Rodney Hood’s place and while it very likely may not be Alec Burks due to the limited minutes he’s been able to play as he works to recover from his recent ankle surgery, it still feels good to have him back and pin him as a key figure in this game.

And whether Burks starts and gets significant minutes or not, he’ll need to play his part well in both adding a much-needed scoring punch for the Jazz as well as utilizing his quickness to slow Devin Booker defensively. Devin Booker has been nearly unstoppable of late as he has put up a career-high 39 points in each of his last two contests while shooting 61.9 percent from the field and 75 percent from deep.

He’s moved his way up the ladder and is now the Suns’ leading scorer having recently surpassed Eric Bledsoe for the spot. The two create a dynamic backcourt duo as Booker is averaging 20.3 points per game while Bledsoe is chipping in 20.1. But given how hot Booker has been of late, he will certainly need to be the key player of focus for the Jazz.

Burks, meanwhile, has appeared to get some of the spring back in his step as he played well against Orlando notching eight points on 3-of-5 shooting in 15 minutes of play.

With all the time he’s missed this season, it would be great to see him have a breakout game particularly while he has such a great opportunity in Hood’s absence. If he’s able to put up even a low double-figure game while also helping out his teammates to force Booker into an inefficient night, it will give the Jazz a critical advantage in winning this game.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Utah Jazz

Key Stat – Turnovers

Although the Utah Jazz are riding a stellar three-game winning streak, turnovers have continually plagued them and have helped opposing teams to stay in games. Over the last four games, the Jazz are averaging 15 turnovers per contest. Unfortunately that isn’t actually that much higher than the 13.9 turnovers per game that has become their season average, but it’s much worse than what it was to start the year and significantly higher than what this team is capable of.

And although the Jazz rank 16th in the league in turnovers per contest at 13.9 and the Suns rank 28th with a staunch 16.2 per game, you wouldn’t have known such was the case in these two teams’ last meeting.

In their New Year’s Eve bout, the Jazz turned the ball over 15 times compared to Phoenix’s nine. These miscues led to 16 easy points for the Suns.

It should also be noted that the Suns’ turnover average may be a bit misleading given that they play at the third fastest pace in the league. With more possessions per game, naturally your turnover figures will be somewhat higher.

However, that ought to go both ways. With Utah playing at the league’s slowest pace, you’d expect them to do a much better job of taking care of the basketball.

So if the Jazz hope to stop the underdog Suns from earning a win on their home court, they’ll have to do a much better job of avoiding turnovers while also attempting to use Phoenix’s fast pace against them so that they commit more than their season average.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Utah Jazz

Key Performer – Rudy Gobert

Rudy Gobert has been an absolute monster in both contests against the Phoenix Suns so far this season. In the first game he put up an incredible stat line of 22 points on 6-of-8 shooting and 11 rebounds, then followed it up in the second contest with 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting and 13 rebounds.

Given the fact that the Suns suffer from an extreme lack of depth in the paint – their power forwards are undersized or inexperienced, Tyson Chandler is old and Alex Len may be good at throwing elbows, but he’s no match for Utah’s bigs – Rudy Gobert should be able to have an absolute hay day once again against the Suns.

Gobert continues to be a dominant force for the Jazz on both ends of the floor, most recently evidenced by his 19-point, 19-rebound double-double against Orlando on Saturday, and has given every indication this season that he has Phoenix’s number.

Many of the top centers in the league have struggled to contain Gobert, so I find it highly unlikely that Phoenix’s mediocre squad will be able to find a way to stop him tonight.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Utah Jazz

Prediction – Jazz 106, Suns 101

While I’d love to see Utah roll to a comfortable victory over a Suns team that is posting a dismal record on the season so far, both games this year have been closely contested and particularly with Rodney Hood sidelined, I expect a similarly hard-fought bout tonight.

The Suns are young and inexperienced but have some talented up-and-comers in the likes of Devin Booker, TJ Warren and Marquese Chriss. While they often have their off nights, they’ve also proven capable of getting hot and surprising even the league’s best.

Nevertheless, as the old mantra goes, good teams find a way to win and bad teams find a way to lose. Even if this game comes down to the wire, I suspect that the Jazz will prove their mettle and grind out a victory in the fourth quarter just as they’ve done in the past two games against Phoenix.

Doing so would not only extend the Jazz’s winning streak to four games but it would be a great way to go into three days of rest before preparing to face Dallas and Indiana in back-to-back games that should be very winnable for a rising Jazz team.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com

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