Ever since the Phoenix Suns fell out of the Western Conference playoff picture a few weeks ago, the response has been one of slightly condescending admiration.
Sure they were plucky and fun, the thinking went (and in some ways goes). But with so many draft picks and the future bright as all get out, is missing the postseason really the worst thing in the world?
Apparently, the Suns didn’t get that backhanded memo.
Coupled with the Dallas Mavericks’ 107-104 overtime loss to the Brooklyn Nets Sunday night, Phoenix’s 127-120 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves pulled them back to within a half-game of the West’s No. 8 seed.
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Appropriate, then, that the two teams owed their newly joined collision course to a pair of disparate Sunday fortunes.
How close has it gotten in the West? Take a look for yourself.
The pomp of playoff predictions might belong to the conference cream, but the battle at the bottom of the bracket might well end up being just as compelling.
Though still squarely in the fray, Phoenix has a patchy row to hoe down the stretch, with eight of its final 12 games being away from U.S. Airways Arena’s friendly confines—including a date with Dallas on April 12.
The Mavs, meanwhile, will play six of their last 11 tilts at home. However, with games against the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies and Suns on the near-term docket, Dallas’ may well end up being the tougher schedule.
Despite eight of their final 13 games coming on the road (April 14 at Phoenix: mark it down), the Memphis Grizzlies—currently slotted in the No. 7 spot—actually tout the sixth-easiest strength of schedule over their remaining slate, per PlayoffStatus.com.
More important than each team’s strength of schedule, however, is how their respective showdowns shape out.
Of course, it’s fair to ask for what right, exactly, the West’s final three hopefuls are playing, why with their combined record against the conference-leading Spurs a putrid 2-7 on the season.
And while Memphis, Dallas and Phoenix have fared slightly better against the Thunder (3-5 combined), the prospect of OKC overtaking San Antonio’s postseason perch probably isn’t the most gleaming of prospects.
Anything can happen in the playoffs, of course, which is why you should expect this little battle within a battle to unfurl well into the season’s final days.
How do things look from a mathematical standpoint at this precise moment?
According to ESPN’s John Hollinger, the Suns have only a 28.6 percent chance of eking into the postseason, while the Mavs (88.6 percent) and Grizzlies (83.3 percent) appear poised to hold steady.
Heading into the home stretch, none of the three teams can count untimely sores and sprains as potential stumbling blocks, according to Sports Illustrated’s injury ticker.
The result: a recipe for one of the most interesting—if under-covered—playoff photo finishes in recent memory.
On paper, the respective pedigrees of the Mavs and Grizzlies should win out. Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley: These two Western Conference staples have been here before—all the way, in Dallas’ case.
But the Suns have never been about that chalk life. This a team, after all, most pundits picked to finished at or near the bottom of the standings—not just in its own conference, either.
Instead, first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek took a seeming cacophony of cast-offs and also-rans and turned them into one of the NBA’s most exciting up-and-coming teams. Having Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic didn’t hurt, of course.
Following his team's 98-92 win over the Detroit Pistons Friday night, Hornacek was effusive in answering any critics who might suggest his team would politely bow out. Per NBA.com's Bob Baum:
"I told the guys a couple game ago that the rest of the season you're going to have to scrap and claw and fight for every play, every possession to have a chance of getting into these playoffs."
The persistent pressure of the final sprint might well end up Phoenix's undoing. But if the Suns have taught us anything, it’s that theirs is a flare capable of torching even the soft bigotry of low expectations.