The sputtering Indiana Pacers welcome the new-look Suns to Indianapolis on Friday, as Phoenix concludes its five-game Eastern Conference road swing with a renewed outlook on the season.
The Suns suffered their first defeat of the road trip on Thursday, 116-107 to Atlanta. The loss — just the third over Phoenix’s last 12 games — took a backseat to the franchise’s roster movement ahead of the trade deadline.
Phoenix sent Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, along with future draft picks, to Brooklyn in exchange for 10-time All-NBA honoree and former Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant. Jae Crowder, whom the Suns also traded in the package, was moved to Milwaukee shortly thereafter.
“It was an emotional day,” Suns coach Monty Williams said before Thursday’s game. “(Bridges and Johnson) are near and dear to my heart. They’re literally like my family. …They understand the business side of it, but they also understand that there’s a human side, an emotional side, a connection that is greater than the business side.”
The shakeup left Phoenix short-handed at Atlanta and bringing a much different roster than the squad that beat Indiana 112-107 in Phoenix on Jan. 21. Durant is unlikely to play Friday.
Bridges scored 22 points for the Suns in that contest, and Deandre Ayton sat with a sprained ankle. Ayton is back in the lineup and coming off a 23-point performance on 10-of-15 shooting in Atlanta.
Indiana features a different lineup than its last time facing Phoenix as well — most notably the return of Tyrese Haliburton.
Haliburton — the Pacers’ leading scorer at 19.8 points per game and the NBA leader in assists with 10.3 a contest — rejoined the lineup on Feb. 2 after a 10-game absence due to knee and elbow injuries.
He scored 26 points and dished 12 assists in his first game back, and Haliburton has produced double-doubles in three of four outings since his return. However, he has scored under his average in three straight, with an 11-point outing in Indiana’s 116-111 loss Wednesday at Miami.
“They paid a lot of attention to him. They did some double-teaming,” Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said of Miami’s defensive strategy on Haliburton. “They paid the guy the ultimate respect, putting their best defender on him. When that happens, we’ve got to strike more balance.”
“That’s just the evolution of the game of basketball, evolution of my career and this season, seeing different coverages,” Haliburton said. “I’ve got to be better.”
The defeat was the Pacers’ second straight and 13th in their last 15 games. The steep skid has resulted in an Indiana team firmly in the playoff picture at January’s outset now six games below .500 and two spots out of 10th place in the Eastern Conference.
Haliburton said on Wednesday he looked forward to facing Chris Paul, Phoenix’s veteran point guard and 11-time All-NBA selection, another player who did not appear in the Jan. 21 matchup.
Paul finished with 15 points and eight assists in Thursday’s loss. Josh Okogie — Phoenix’s leading scorer when the Suns last saw the Pacers with 24 points — scored a team-high 25 points in Atlanta.
–Field Level Media