Suns look to shake off rust against Grizzlies

NBA Basketball

The Phoenix Suns are scheduled to return from a COVID-19-mandated week off Monday afternoon when they visit the Memphis Grizzlies for a nationally televised contest on the NBA’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day card.

The Suns last played Jan. 11 in a 128-107 loss to the Washington Wizards, who had multiple players test positive after the game.

Unable to field the minimum required number of players due to contact tracing, the Suns were forced to postpone an entire homestand — Wednesday against Atlanta, Friday against Golden State and Saturday against Indiana.

The result will be a fourth straight road game Monday and then a fifth Wednesday at Houston. By that point, the Suns will have opened the season with nine of 13 on the road.

The game is as important to the Grizzlies as the Suns. It will be the 19th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Game, one during which Ray Allen, Kenny Smith and WNBA star Nneka Ogwumike will be honored with National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy Awards.

“There is always excitement for the MLK game here in Memphis,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said Saturday. “So much history with our community rallying around this game and the fans and being in the spotlight and being able to play basketball on this special day means so much to these guys.”

The Grizzlies had a celebration of sorts on Saturday, when they welcomed back Ja Morant in a 106-104 home win over Philadelphia.

The reigning NBA Rookie of the Year had missed eight straight games with a sprained ankle. He put up 17 points and six assists in 31 minutes.

The win was Memphis’ fourth in a row and featured balanced scoring, with seven Grizzlies — including reserves Xavier Tillman, Grayson Allen and Desmond Bane — scoring in double figures.

The Grizzlies and Suns dueled for a play-in spot in the Western Conference playoffs last season. A 3-1 advantage in the season series gave Memphis the No. 9 seed — and a head-to-head with No. 8 Portland — after the Grizzlies and Suns had finished with identical 34-39 records.

The clubs did not face each other in the bubble, where Phoenix went 8-0.

That strong play away from home has carried over to this season, where the Suns already have wins at Sacramento, Utah, Denver and Indiana.

“I’m not quite sure we’re going to call this team special yet, we got a lot more work to do, but we have special people on this team across the board,” Suns coach Monty Williams said after the win at Indiana on Jan. 9. “High-character guys that bring it every day. They put up with me and I’m grateful to have the kind of players that we have.”

Mikal Bridges has been one of the headliners of late. After improving his scoring (8.3 to 9.1) and rebounding (3.2 to 4.0) averages slightly from his rookie year to last season, the third-year pro has exploded this season, currently averaging 15.1 points and 5.4 rebounds.

He was the driving force in the win at Indiana with a career-best 34 points. He followed that with 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting in last Monday’s loss at Washington.

Phoenix is not expecting any COVID-related absences on Monday.

–Field Level Media

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