The Phoenix Suns have been on an improbable mission to silence doubters by earning a Western Conference postseason berth. The upstart Suns have been able to compete with anyone and everyone throughout the regular season, but their efforts will fall by the wayside if they’re forced to watch playoff games from home.
It’s gut-check time for Phoenix, as every game remaining will be crucial to its postseason aspirations. Head coach Jeff Hornacek said as much prior to the March 30 matchup with the lowly Los Angeles Lakers, per Mike Trudell of Lakers.com via Twitter:
Suns coach Hornacek: “Every game is a playoff game.” Matching the energy/desperate nature of PHX (No. 7 seed) won’t be easy for LAL tonight.— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) March 31, 2014
While Trudell alluded to the Suns’ “desperate nature” entering the road matchup, the only thing Phoenix wound up being desperate for was made baskets.
The Purple and Orange suffered a huge letdown against the 25-48 Lakers, as a woeful 15-point first quarter led to a 115-99 loss. Eric Bledsoe finished 1-of-9 from the field, Channing Frye was 1-of-7 and P.J. Tucker was 2-of-8. Overall, the Suns shot a pitiful 38.5 percent and finished 8-of-36 from beyond the arc.
Coach Hornacek was frustrated with his team’s insatiable desire to shoot from long range. “They all thought they were going to make them, and it’s not always going to be there. So at that point, quit shooting them and drive to the basket,” he said, per the Associated Press (via ESPN).
Even with the loss, the Suns have been one of the league’s hottest teams. They’re 8-2 in their past 10 contests, but a defeat at the hands of a depleted Lakers squad simply cannot happen.
“Our schedule gets a lot harder after this,” Hornacek said after the loss to L.A., according to the Associated Press (via ESPN). “Play all the top teams now in the next six or seven games, so that’s why this game was so important. I mean, if this happens against Oklahoma City or the Clippers, then fine. But this team is not a playoff team, so that’s why it’s disappointing.”
April plays host to Phoenix’s final eight regular-season games. Six of those will be against some of the best in the West.
The Suns are poised to play the Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, OKC Thunder and San Antonio Spurs before two gigantic matchups against the Mavericks and Grizzlies. That excludes potential spoilers like the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings.
As if that strength of schedule isn’t menacing enough, Phoenix may not even get the benefit of the doubt if it finishes in a three-way tie with Dallas and Memphis, per CBS Sports’ Matt Moore:
Mavs 7, Grizz 8, Suns 9 RT @RaganSmash: @ what will happen if Griz, Suns, and Mavs finish with the same record for the 8?— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) March 25, 2014
Numerous variables need to fall into place for the Suns if they’re going to make the playoffs as part of a three-way tie. As a result, Phoenix must control its own destiny by posting a superior overall record as it relates to the Mavs and Grizz.
That won’t be easy, as the Suns have compiled a 10-12 record against the eight remaining opponents—they’re 0-3 against Memphis.
Phoenix can take solace in the fact that it’s at full strength, but the schedule certainly doesn’t favor the Suns moving forward.
After laying an egg against the Lakers, Coach Hornacek said, “I don’t know if we had a single guy who came with the energy that they usually have,” per AZ Central’s Paul Coro.
Phoenix is undoubtedly feeling the sting of a grueling 82-game schedule, but the playing field is level in that regard.
Every team is banged up and fighting for wins. That’s nothing new.
Unfortunately for Suns fans, key pieces are slumping at an inopportune time.
Since returning from knee surgery on March 12 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Bledsoe is shooting 40 percent from the field and 32.5 percent from three-point range. Those marks are a far cry from his pre-All-Star-break numbers of 48.6 percent shooting from the field and 35 percent from downtown, via NBA.com. He’s clearly still trying to knock off the rust that accompanies a two-month absence.
Meanwhile, Frye—who has been such an integral part of this team as a floor-spacing, pick-and-roll big—is in an evident funk. The 30-year-old veteran shot 39.3 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from three-point land during March. He’s just 2-of-14 from downtown in the last three games—14.3 percent.
Additionally, Miles Plumlee hasn’t made much of an impact on either end of the floor after a torrid start to his sophomore year.
The “Plumdog” snatched down rebounds, scored finesse buckets and swatted shots with regularity during the first two months of his 2013-14 campaign, but his minutes have dwindled due to a lack of production.
He’s averaging just 0.6 blocks per game in March, which is part of the reason why Phoenix’s defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) is 105.4 during that span, per NBA.com. The Suns’ defensive rating for the 2013-14 season sits at 103.7—tied for 13th in the Association.
The Suns have still been winning games with regularity, but the letdown loss against L.A. coupled with struggles from key rotational cogs is not an uplifting harbinger for fans.
The uninspired performance against the Lakers even prompted Dragic—the team’s leading scorer—to call out his teammates’ desire to make the playoffs, per AZ Central’s Paul Coro:
Phoenix has embraced the underdog role all season long. The desert dwellers have been the David to the NBA’s collective Western Conference Goliath, but they’ve thrived through basement-level expectations.
Making the postseason would be icing on the cake of a miraculous season, but the odds are undoubtedly stacked against Hornacek, Dragic and Co.
Ultimately, I believe the Suns’ playoff hopes will be decided by head-to-heads on April 12 (at Dallas) and April 14 (versus Memphis). If they don’t deliver against those two playoff hopefuls, they’ll simply be another forgotten lottery team.