After a grueling three-game road swing in four days, the Phoenix Suns return home Friday night to play the New York Knicks in a pivotal game for both teams.
Phoenix (47-19) is one game behind the first-place Utah Jazz (48-18) in the Western Conference standings with only six games remaining.
New York (37-29) has yet to clinch a playoff berth. The Knicks have put themselves in a good position at No. 4 in the Eastern Conference, a half-game ahead of the Atlanta Hawks heading into NBA play Thursday. The Knicks have gone 12-2 in their last 14 games.
Phoenix had the arduous task of playing the Hawks on the road Wednesday, less than 24 hours after they were in Ohio defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers in overtime. The Suns looked sluggish on defense in the 135-103 loss to Atlanta.
"It's not a recipe for a lot of energy, I can tell you that," Suns coach Monty Williams said after the loss to the Hawks.
"(Atlanta) got off to a really good start and we fought like heck until I pulled the plug. ... Not anything real deep about (the game)."
They started their road trip Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder and pulled off a 123-120 victory.
Phoenix's loss to Atlanta, coupled with the Jazz defeating the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday, put the Suns a game behind at the top of the conference standings.
"We're coming down that final stretch, but I think this is the most important stretch for us to be playing high-level basketball, so you have to put the excuses aside," Suns guard Devin Booker said.
The Knicks recently had a nine-game winning streak snapped by Phoenix in New York, 118-110 on April 26. The Knicks then won three consecutive games before losing at the Denver Nuggets 113-97 on Wednesday.
"We didn't come ready to play; I'm throwing this one in the trash,'' said the Knicks' Julius Randle, the Eastern Conference Player of the Month for April, who scored 14 points with eight rebounds against the Nuggets.
The Knicks, who also have just six regular-season games remaining, might be in fourth place, but they were just two games ahead of No. 7 Miami at the start of NBA play Thursday. The top six seeds avoid the play-in tournament.
"Definitely a throwaway game but the team feels it,'' Knicks center Nerlens Noel said. "The locker room wasn't the same. Guys' energy postgame wasn't there.''
The Knicks received some promising news off the court Wednesday.
Luca Vildoza, a top playmaking guard in Europe, agreed in principle to a four-year, $13.6 million deal with the team ahead of free agency this summer, ESPN reported.
The Argentine guard is currently with Baskonia in the Spanish ACB League. The 6-foot-3 standout was named MVP of the 2020 Spanish ACB finals, leading his team to the title.
A member of the Argentina national team, Vildoza averaged 10.3 points on 42.1 percent shooting in 25.2 minutes per game in Euroleague play this year.
--Field Level Media