Amidst the steadily heating hype of the NBA postseason, Wednesday’s showdown between the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards offered a welcome narrative respite: two teams few believed would be relevant giving doubters a double dose of the future.
In the end, the visiting Suns prevailed, staving off a furious fourth-quarter run by John Wall and company en route to a gutsy 99-93 victory.
More importantly, the win moved Phoenix back into a tie with the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies for the Western Conference final playoff spot—one night after Dirk Nowitzki spurred his team to a narrow overtime win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Two weeks ago, the NBA intelligentsia had all but written off the precocious Suns, as they had ahead of the season, claiming they had more to gain in draft-day wares than a surefire first-round exit.
Maybe this time we’ll learn.
Phoenix has now won seven of its last eight games, including three straight on the road. And with easy pickings against the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers next up on the docket, the Suns have a chance to position themselves as one of the West’s hottest teams—a playoff Cinderella peaking at the perfect time.
The whole thing would’ve seemed a proper fairy tale six months ago, when most pundits were falling over themselves to undersell Jeff Hornacek’s fresh-faced neophytes.
Not everyone bought the bad news, however. Take, for instance, this particularly prescient fanpost from the SB Nation blog Bright Side of the Sun:
The Suns will compete in every game this season. No one, not even the contenders, will be able to mark Phoenix down as an automatic win on their schedule. Phoenix is going to play with tempo, play aggressive on both ends, and come out every night with nothing to lose because they've already been written off. This team will beat you, and will do it in multiple ways.
Note: That piece was written on November 7, after a whopping five games (the Suns were 3-2).
Phoenix? They just kept on winning. But even the way they won went under the radar: Sturdily, steadily, with no win streak longer than five games (achieved thrice after tonight) and despite a semiserious injury to promising point guard Eric Bledsoe.
All the while, the condescending whispers continued apace: Once the grind of the season sets in, the Suns will falter—you just watch.
Instead, Phoenix was treated to a career year from Goran Dragic (who very nearly made the All-Star team—and probably should have), a brilliant opening opus from Coach of the Year candidate Jeff Hornacek and a chemistry that was immediately apparent to anyone capable of recognizing good, gestalt basketball.
The way the Suns stood toe to toe with the league’s elite; how their energy and enthusiasm seemed to send sparks shooting off the television screen—one might think these kids were mad about all the hem-haw handwringing.
Reading Dragic’s comments to Sean Deveney of Sporting News, it’s impossible to surmise otherwise.
Of course it made me angry. It made all of us angry. Before the season, nobody expected us to do anything. They said what, we gonna have 15, 16 wins? But everybody in here was positive from the first day, everybody tried to get some work done. What other people say, they are going to say. I cared about my teammates and what we were doing.
So no, these Suns will not go quietly into that good lottery, thank you very much.
That’s not to say the task at hand’s an easy one: After the Knicks and Lakers, six of Phoenix’s final eight games will be against teams currently slotted in the playoff bracket—including one date each with Dallas and Memphis.
Even if their late-season surge falls a shot short, Phoenix’s future will not have drafted in vain.
For if there’s a philosophical counterweight to the idea that tanking is the best way to build tomorrow’s contender, it’s what the Suns are doing: banking on the residual effects of winning now—to say nothing of fostering a sustainable cultural chemistry—paying bigger dividends down the road, even if it means certain playoff disappointment.
Only, maybe not. While the Suns are a mere 1-2 against likely No. 1 seed the San Antonio Spurs, the two’s last meeting—a February 21 game in Phoenix—ended in the most lopsided loss of the season for the visiting Spurs (106-85).
What has San Antonio done since? Only won 15 games in a row, seizing the NBA’s best record in the process.
Consider the notice served.
Even if the Suns bow out, be it by a standings hair or playoff purge, theirs is a trajectory that managed to avoid tanking’s trappings—a testament, perhaps, to the idea that there’s more than one way to win the future.