Despite their hard work, the Phoenix Suns are currently on the outside looking in.
Though they have exceeded all expectations for this season, a 42-29 record is still only good enough for the ninth seed in the Western Conference. They are just one-half game back of both the Memphis Grizzlies and the Dallas Mavericks.
Even the Golden State Warriors, currently sixth in the conference, are only two games removed from the lottery.
And the fifth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, who are 3-7 over their last 10 matches, are three games from the ninth seed.
With 11 games left to go in the regular season, that means that reaching the sixth or even fifth seed is still a plausible goal for Phoenix.
First, however, it's important to decide whether they can attain a playoff spot at all.
In order to assess their odds, let's look at the remaining schedules for the Suns as well as for some of their competitors.
Ever since Eric Bledsoe's return, the Suns have gone 6-2. That is an encouraging sign.
On the other hand, look at the eight opponents they've faced over that time span: Only one of their wins came against a team with a winning record—a 121-113 win over Toronto.
Truthfully, the Suns have had a very easy March schedule. But now is when the opponents will start to become much tougher.
Here is the full Suns schedule for the rest of the season.
|Date||Opponent||Opponent Record||Season Series (as of March 26th)|
|March 26th||@WAS||36-34||1-0 WAS|
|March 28th||VS NYK||29-42||1-0 NYK|
|March 30th||@ LAL||24-46||3-0 PHX|
|April 2nd||VS LAC||50-21||2-1 LAC|
|April 4th||@ POR||45-27||2-1 PHX|
|April 6th||VS OKC||52-19||1-1 Tied|
|April 9th||@ NOP||30-40||3-0 PHX|
|April 11th||@ SAS||54-16||2-1 SAS|
|April 12th||@ DAL||43-29||1-1 Tied|
|April 14th||VS MEM||42-28||3-0 MEM|
|April 16th||@ SAC||25-45||2-1 SAC|
But the schedule becomes extraordinarily difficult in April, as the Suns play the first, second, third, fifth, seventh and eighth seeds in the Western conference.
That's six teams with a superior record. And the Suns are only winning the season series against one of those teams (Portland).
Even Sacramento, a team with a 25-45 record, has beaten Phoenix twice this season. That is no guaranteed win either.
Also, notice that seven of the games are on the road (where the Suns are 18-16 this season).
On the bright side, there is only one back-to-back. However, those two games will be on the road, and they will come against two fiercely competitive teams (San Antonio and Dallas).
Pay close attention to the last three games of the season, too, as those are clearly the most important. The Suns play both the Mavericks and Grizzlies, which could significantly impact their place in the standings at the last moment.
And if the Suns beat the Mavs, they take a 2-1 series lead, meaning that they own the tiebreaker over Dallas in the event that both teams finish the season with the same record. Unfortunately, the Suns have already lost the season series to the Grizzlies.
Given their schedule, it would be unreasonable to expect the Suns to cap off their season with an 11-game winning streak.
Nevertheless, the Suns may need to find a way to win at least six or seven of these games if they want a playoff spot. Perhaps it will take even more.
The Mavericks are currently the eighth seed, and so far they have shown no sign of letting up. In fact, they are 7-3 over the last 10 games.
But, let's take a look at their remaining schedule.
|Date||Opponent||Opponent Record||Season Series|
|March 27th||VS LAC||50-21||LAC 2-0|
|March 29th||VS SAC||25-45||Tied 1-1|
|April 1st||VS GSW||44-27||GSW 2-1|
|April 3rd||@ LAC||50-21||LAC 2-0|
|April 4th||@ LAL||24-46||DAL 2-0|
|April 6th||@ SAC||25-45||Tied 1-1|
|April 8th||@ UTA||23-48||Dal 3-0|
|April 10th||VS SAS||54-16||3-0 SAS|
|April 12th||VS PHX||42-29||Tied 1-1|
|April 16th||@ MEM||42-28||3-0 DAL|
A few key losses against Phoenix, Memphis and Golden State could really swing momentum to the other side. However, all of those four games are at home.
Dallas will have a long, four-game road trip, but the opponents they'll play—Sacramento, Utah and the Lakers—don't really pose a threat.
Notice the Mavs' final two games. After they play Phoenix, they'll hop on a plane to Memphis and play the Grizzlies. And while Memphis and Dallas are dueling, Phoenix will be in Sacramento.
It is simply an extraordinary coincidence that the Mavs, Grizzlies and Suns will all play each other at the very end of the year.
If there's one factor that harms Dallas more than its competitors, it is age.
Jose Calderon, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki and Samuel Dalembert are all key players over the age of 30. That means that at the end of a grueling season, fatigue and injuries could settle in.
On the other hand, Dallas has plenty of playoff experience, which the Suns lack.
Overall, while this is a tough schedule, it may not be so daunting for an experienced Dallas squad. Expect them to win at least five of these 10 games to close out the season.
Since the All-Star break, the Memphis Grizzlies have been on a torrid winning streak. They are 13-5 over their last 18 games.
The return of Marc Gasol has clearly sparked their recent play, and unfortunately for Dallas and Phoenix, the Grizzlies may not be slowing down soon.
Why? Well, here's their remaining schedule.
|Date||Opponent||Opponent Record||Season Series|
|March 26th||@ UTA||23-48||2-0 MEM|
|March 28th||@ GSW||44-27||2-1 MEM|
|March 30th||@ POR||45-27||2-0 MEM|
|March 31st||@ DEN||32-39||1-1 Tied|
|April 2nd||@ MIN||34-35||2-1 MEM|
|April 4th||VS DEN||32-39||1-1 Tied|
|April 6th||@ SAS||54-16||3-0 SAS|
|April 9th||VS MIA||48-21||1-0 MIA|
|April 11th||VS PHI||15-56||1-0 MEM|
|April 13th||@ LAL||24-46||2-1 MEM|
|April 14th||@ PHX||42-29||3-0 MEM|
|April 16th||VS DAL||43-29||3-0 DAL|
The first five games for the Grizzlies are road games, but it isn't a particularly difficult slate of opponents to face. Memphis holds a lead in the season series against all of those teams with exception of the Denver Nuggets.
In fact, Memphis has dominated virtually every opponent on its remaining schedule throughout the season. The Grizzlies did lose to San Antonio on three separate occasions, but against Phoenix—their main competition for the eighth seed—they're a perfect 3-0.
Overall, the Grizzlies do not have an amazingly easy schedule, but it is clearly less challenging than those of Dallas and Phoenix. Memphis has the advantage of playing some easy games against the 76ers, Lakers and Jazz.
Given their recent hot streak, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see the Grizzlies finish strong by winning eight or nine of these last 12 games.
So, do the Suns have a chance?
Absolutely. As we can see from the article, the Mavericks have just as difficult a schedule as the Suns do for the next few weeks. And other teams not even talked about—such as Portland and Golden State—could also still slip out of playoff seeds.
Which Team Will Finish 9th?
The Grizzlies, however, seem to be considerably more difficult to overtake. And that means that either the Suns will have to start beating teams that are considered better than they are, or they'll just have to hope that someone else makes a mistake.
The game against Dallas on April 12th may end up being the most pivotal game of the season for Phoenix. Whichever team wins that game and takes the season series tiebreaker would likely be the one to make the playoffs if the race is still very close.
Unfortunately, at this point it is simply impossible to predict what will happen. There's a large chance that the Suns will make the playoffs, and yet at the same time fans should be prepared in case they don't.
Odds: 55 percent