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Bradley Beal looks to return vs. Rockets as Suns face toughest remaining NBA schedule

Phoenix Suns star guard Bradley Beal being close to returning from a left hamstring injury that has sidelined him the last five games is good news for three major reasons.

One, he’s reached the final stages to coming back. Beal played in a pickup game with “low-minute” Suns teammates before Friday’s practice at the team’s practice facility.

“It’s everything, you’ve got to test it out,” Suns coach Frank Vogel said after Friday’s practice. “You’ve got to test it out as much of game speed as you can. These pick-up games are not really NBA intensity, but it’s the closest thing to it. Being able to come through that pain free is a real positive sign.”

Two, Beal provides Phoenix a third scoring option capable of 30 points on any given night and help relieve Devin Booker and Kevin Durant of having to carry the offense as far as scoring and facilitating.

Booker and Durant account for 40.4% of the team’s scoring and 40.25% of the assists. Beal will be on a minute restriction if he plays Saturday and still wear a mask even after having a procedure done on his broken nose during the NBA All-Star break.

Three, Phoenix (35-24) has the NBA’s toughest remaining schedule and could use a healthy roster to combat that.

Feb 8, 2024; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Bradley Beal (3) celebrates after a play during the second quarter of the game against the Utah Jazz at Footprint Center.
Feb 8, 2024; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Bradley Beal (3) celebrates after a play during the second quarter of the game against the Utah Jazz at Footprint Center.

Fifth in the West, the Suns face the top four teams in the Western Conference – Minnesota, Oklahoma City, defending NBA champion Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers – and top two teams in the Eastern Conference – Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers – twice.

Boston has the NBA's top record at 46-12, winning its last nine games.

“I think that is how it should be,” Suns All-Star Devin Booker said after Thursday’s 110-105 win over the Rockets at Footprint Center.

“You want to play these games late in the season, teams you might see and already get in the flow of ramping it up. Getting a taste of what the playoffs are going to feel like. Looking forward to it. Trying to win every game we can. Obviously, stay out of the play-in and maybe move up a couple spots and get home court advantage.”

Phoenix faces Houston (25-34) for the third time in four games Saturday on Amar’e Stoudemire’s Ring of Honor ceremony at Footprint Center. Eric Gordon (left groin soreness) is listed as questionable while Nassir Little (knee inflammation) is doubtful.

“Making progress, hopeful to have him,” said Vogel about Gordon, who has missed Phoenix’s last two games.

After their fourth and final matchup Saturday against Houston, the Suns begin this stretch of facing the NBA’s best Sunday against Oklahoma City in the second of a home back-to-back.

  • Thunder – Sunday at home, March 29 at OKC (Suns 0-1 season series).

  • Nuggets – Tuesday at Denver, March 27 at Denver (Suns 0-1 season series).

  • Celtics – March 9 at home, March 14 at Boston (Haven’t played this season).

  • Cavs – March 11 at Cleveland, April 3 at home (Haven’t played this season).

  • T-Wolves – April 5 at home, April 14 at Minneapolis (Suns 1-0 season series).

  • Clippers – April 9 at home, April 10 in Los Angeles (Suns 0-2 season series).

Being fifth in the West, the Suns have a chance to move up in the standings by playing the T-Wolves (42-17), Thunder (41-18), Nuggets (41-19) and Clippers (37-20) multiple times down the stretch. Phoenix is seven games behind the West-leading Minnesota, six behind OKC, 5 ½ behind Denver and three behind Los Angeles going into Friday’s games.

Phoenix Suns head coach Frank Vogel watches his team play against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first quarter at Footprint Center in Phoenix on Feb. 25, 2024.
Phoenix Suns head coach Frank Vogel watches his team play against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first quarter at Footprint Center in Phoenix on Feb. 25, 2024.

“We’re aware of the teams that are bunched up behind us, but we’re targeting the top four,” Vogel said. “We want to move up. We want to be a team that gets homecourt in the first round and get the highest seed possible. We have a team that we believe can beat anyone. The schedule is difficult, but on any given night, I like our chances, especially if we’re at full strength.”

Beal has missed 29 games this season with multiple injuries in his first year in Phoenix. He’s averaging 18.2 points as the Suns are 19-11 when he’s played this season.

Phoenix plays March 17 at Milwaukee, which is third in the East, as part of a four-game road trip. The Suns defeated the Bucks at home, 114-106, last month.

They also take on the Pelicans twice (April 1 in New Orleans, April 7 at home) and battle the Kings on April 12 at Sacramento as part of a three-game road trip to close out the regular season.

New Orleans is sixth in the West and just a half game behind Phoenix while Sacramento stands eighth in the West and trail the Suns by 1-½ games. The Suns are 1-0 versus the Pelicans and 2-2 against the Kings.

Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant (35) congratulates forward Royce O'Neale (00) after a three-pointer against the Sacramento Kings during the fourth quarter at Footprint Center in Phoenix on Feb. 13, 2024.
Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant (35) congratulates forward Royce O'Neale (00) after a three-pointer against the Sacramento Kings during the fourth quarter at Footprint Center in Phoenix on Feb. 13, 2024.

Phoenix is playing Sacramento five times this season due to facing each other in the In-Season Tournament after losing in the quarterfinals. The Suns won that Dec. 9 matchup to give them three home games against the Kings this season.

“Just stay locked in,” Suns big Bol Bol said on approach to remaining schedule. “It is a tough schedule, but I think the best way to approach it is to take it game by game and not look too far ahead.”

The Suns have won their last nine home games, but they have just 10 more remaining at Footprint Center. Phoenix is 20-11 at home this season.

“Just taking pride, we want to protect our homecourt,” Suns big Jusuf Nurkic said. “We didn’t start right on our homecourt, but we want to see the arena full, engaged and show our fans we care for homecourt.”

Have opinions about the current state of the Suns? Reach Suns Insider Duane Rankin at dmrankin@gannett.com or contact him at 480-787-1240. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, at @DuaneRankin.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Suns toughest remaining NBA schedule as Beal looks to return from injury