PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 13: Grant Hill #33 of the Phoenix Suns high fives teammates Steve Nash #13 and Marcin Gortat #4 after scoring against the San Antonio Spurs during the NBA game at US Airways Center on April 13, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The Phoenix Suns kick off their 2011-12 campaign on December 26th. With 66 games on the schedule, we pick out the 10 most intriguing match-ups and their implications.
The NBA season is right around the corner. Yes, that's right. After a painful lockout and some messy negotiations, it's time to look ahead to the schedule of the Phoenix Suns in the 2011-12 season.
The Suns are one of only eight teams that will play two back-to-back-to-back sets in the NBA. Phoenix will be on national television 16 times- five times on NBA TV, nine on ESPN, and two on TNT.
66 games between now and April 25th? That's a lot of basketball in a short amount of time. Here's a look at this season's 10 must-see Suns games:
Monday, December 26th- vs. New Orleans Hornets
This match-up against the Hornets will be Phoenix's season opener. Will Chris Paul still be on the roster by tip-off? Can these Hornets get off to the same 8-0 start that they got off to last year? These questions make it hard to judge the Suns right out of the gate, but a win on opening day would provide Phoenix and its fan base a decent amount of confidence. Such a victory can do huge things for a team's psyche, especially one that has been off for more than eight months.
Saturday, December 31st- at Oklahoma City Thunder
Led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder have (arguably) the most talented core of young players in the league. This game should give us a good idea of how the Thunder have progressed (or regressed) since last year's playoff loss to the Mavericks and, by extension, how the Suns stack up against one of the West's best. And if the Suns play well in this game? That's only good news for Phoenix's season.
Tuesday, January 10th- at Los Angeles Lakers
This game is intriguing for two reasons: 1) The Lakers have continually tormented the Suns in recent years and 2) The Lakers face a potential season of turmoil after last season's embarrassing playoff sweep to the Mavericks. Putting those two factors together, this game could either re-establish the Lakers as the best team in the Pacific Division or it could signal the end of an era as the former two-time defending champs continue to slip up. Oh, and then there's the possibility that the Suns face Chris Paul and/or Dwight Howard in addition to Kobe Bryant on Jan. 10th.
Wednesday, January 18th- at New York Knicks
This game marks the only time this year that Steve Nash and Co. square off against Mike D'Antoni, Amare Stoudemire and the Knicks. Putting things into perspective, the game will provide some nice perspective about where both teams stand a little over one year removed from the Stoudemire trade. Suns fans may not be too thrilled with what they find out, though Phoenix could certainly prove this assumption wrong come Jan. 18th. The game also becomes a lot more interesting if CP3 makes his way to the Knicks over the next few weeks. Just imagine Nash and Paul leading their respective teams up and down the field as the scoreboard lights up with triple digits.
Wednesday, February 15th- vs. Atlanta Hawks
The mid-February match-up is scheduled for the last night of Phoenix's first back-to-back-to-back, with the prior two games coming on the road against the Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets. This game should show us a lot about the fight of this year's squad, assuming that the players are all running on fumes following eight quarters of basketball in 48 hours. After playing the Hawks, the Suns have an intriguing home-and-away set with the Lakers, placing this contest in the middle of a pivotal five-game stretch.
Monday, February 20th- vs. Washington Wizards
This game marks the halfway point of the Suns schedule. By the end of this one, we'll have a good sense of where the Suns are headed over the remaining 33 games and what their hopes are for either the lottery or the playoffs. Will the Suns find themselves sporting a record such as 17-16? 12-21? 21-12? We just don't know, but this game with the Wizards will provide us one last look at the 2011-12 Suns before fans and media members alike start forming their midseason opinions.
Thursday, March 8th- vs. Dallas Mavericks
Not too long ago, the Suns and Mavericks found themselves atop the Western Conference as both squads, led respectively by Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki, blazed their way through 82-game regular seasons. The Mavericks broke down those comparisons last year by winning it all, which only makes us Suns fans think that Phoenix may be due in the near future. This game continues the shared history of the two franchises and offers a match-up ripe with storylines (Nash, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, etc.). And who knows, maybe the Suns mimic their old Western Conference foe this year and make a surprising run of their own.
Sunday, March 25th- at Cleveland Cavaliers
A match-up with the Cavs caps off a four-game East road trip that features games against the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics (on a back-to-back, no less) as well as the Indiana Pacers. The Suns will be hard pressed to find wins against the Heat and Celtics away from home, and they may need this game to notch just a 1-3 or 2-2 record for the trip. Where the team stands at the end of this stretch will significantly influence the team's momentum heading into the final month of the season.
Thursday, April 19th- vs. Los Angeles Clippers
With only four games left in the regular season, Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon roll into town. Assuming that the Clippers continue to develop from a year ago and that the Clips may have added a piece or two to complement Griffin between now and then, this game could prove crucial in terms of playoff seeding. The plus for Phoenix? Should playoff considerations hang in the balance, the Suns play five of their last six games of the season- including this one- at home while the Clippers close out with four of six on the road.
Wednesday, April 25th- vs. San Antonio Spurs
This game marks the regular season finale for Phoenix. And it's against the much hated Spurs, of course. This match-up, like the Clippers game before it, could prove huge in terms of playoff seeding for both teams. And even if both teams don't have playoff implications hanging in the balance, you can bet that these old rivals will deliver a good one. In the last eight games of the Suns-Spurs series (including Phoenix's unforgettable 4-0 sweep of the Spurs back in the 2010 postseason), only three games have been decided by more than eight points.
So there you have it. Between these 10 games and the other 56 on Phoenix's schedule, there will be plenty of excitement and intensity for basketball-deprived fans everywhere.
If all goes well, we could have another 10 games to talk about- playoff games, at that- following Phoenix's regular season finale against the Spurs.