Golden State Warriors at Phoenix Suns preview: Suns aren't the tanking team we probably expected

The Suns have both defended opposing shooters well and shot the three well, led by P.J. Tucker. - Christian Petersen

The Warriors face a Suns team that is experiencing surprising levels of success on multiple fronts this season.

Golden State Warriors (13-11) at Phoenix Suns (13-9)

5 p.m. PT

US Airways Center - Phoenix, AZ

TV: CSN BA | Radio: KNBR 680

Buddy blog: Bright Side Of The Sun

Looking at the Golden State Warriors' schedule entering the 2013-14 season, we might've quickly scanned past today's game against the Phoenix Suns as an easy W.

Looking at the standings today, the Suns are the hottest team in the Pacific Division and are surprisingly ahead of the Warriors in second place.

Pacific Standings

Los Angeles Clippers 16 9 .640 0 Won 1
Phoenix 13 9 .590 1.5 Won 4
Golden State 13 11 .541 2.5 Lost 1
Los Angeles Lakers 11 12 .478 4 Won 1
Sacramento 6 15 .285 8 Lost 2

(updated 12.15.2013 at 11:57 AM PST)

Pretty much everyone is surprised by this, except maybe the group of men in the Suns locker room who entered the season with no intention of just rolling over and sacrificing their pride for a shot at [whoever you think the big prize in the 2014 NBA Draft is as of today], as described by Sam Amick of USA Today.

"We basically told (the Suns players), we said 'Hey, five of the six coaches on the bench are ex-players," Hornacek said, referring to former NBA players Jerry Sichting, Kenny Gattison, Mark West, and Corey Gaines and former college player Irving Roland. "The one guy that doesn't have the playing experience helped coach an NBA championship team in Boston (Mike Longabardi), and then we've got players. None of us want to lose.' So we emphasized Play Hard, Play Together. We'll win our fair share of games, and there will be no laying down for any of us. We're too competitive."

It's to the point now where the Suns are now open to the possibility of trading one of the 2014 draft picks they've stockpiled if it would return an impact player who could help them win continue winning now.

So what exactly is going on with the Suns?

The short snarky answer might be that they've been the opposite of the Warriors, a team that could be generously described at lackadaisical at times and flat out embarrassing at others. The longer answer might be summarized in a few quotes from recent articles about the Suns that you might've thought were straight from an Onion article prior to the season.

"The Plumlee kid outworked us," Kings coach Mike Malone said.

"The NBA’s top 3-point shooters are Anthony Morrow, Gary Neal, P.J. Tucker, O.J. Mayo, Wils- … wait, Tucker?"

"I don’t think there’s a shot out there I can take that he’ll get mad about," [Gerald] Green said. "Unless I’m shooting from half court or full court, I can pull up three or four feet behind the 3-point line and he’ll say, ‘Hey, good shot.’ That’s the kind of confidence he has in me."

Three keys to beating the Suns

Rebounding: The Suns are ranked 12th in the league in offensive rebounding percentage; the Warriors are ranked 10th in the defensive rebounding percentage. They don't have one dominant offensive rebounder, but Miles Plumlee has been surprisingly good this season and reserve forward Marcus Morris has provided a strong rebounding presence for the team when they insert him at the small forward spot. As efficiently as they score, keeping them off the boards will be huge.

What goes on beyond the arc: The Suns have held opponents to a league-low 32.3% 3-point percentage. It probably goes without saying that a team that can prevent the Warriors from lighting it up from beyond the arc increases their chances of winning, as described in a GSoM fanpost by scraider yesterday:

...Curry and Thompson's three's are very important for the Warriors success. When teams limit them from behind the arc, the offense tends to struggle and the Warriors have a hard time compensating, This is what we have seen in the two games vs Houston, where they have held the Warriors and Splash Brothers to their two lowest 3 pt percentages of the year. However, last night the team stayed competitive without the three point shot, and when Andre Iguodala comes back this dependence should change.

Perimeter defense: For their part, the Suns currently have the sixth-best offensive rating in the league due in part to being tied for ninth in 3-point percentage with P.J. Tucker shooting 47.4% and the aforementioned Morris hitting 42.9% of his attempts. To state the obvious, the combination of an off game from The Splash Brothers and a hot shooting outing from the Suns would really hurt the Warriors.

The big story for the Suns has been the stunning efficiency of their perimeter players, perhaps inspired by the confidence Jeff Hornacek has instilled in this team. Both Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic are right at the 60% true shooting percentage mark on healthy usage rates. Marcus Morris isn't far behind at 58.5. Whatever jokes might come to mind about Gerald Green, he is on pace to have a career year across the board.

Neither of these franchises has a reputation for defensive prowess, but defense could very well be what ends up deciding this one - both of these teams are capable of getting hot, but another lackadaisical performance from the Warriors could short-circuit whatever hopes they have of winning.

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