Put an NBA fanatic six months removed from technology of any kind in US Airways Center for Monday’s must-see matchup between the Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns, and the conclusion would’ve been swift and certain.
This, surely, is a playoff game.
In a way—one that can ring torturously true only for those who endure the pain of a decisive postseason loss—it was.
With their gutsy 97-91 win, the Grizzlies secured a spot on the Western Conference docket, with the only lingering question being who will face the San Antonio Spurs. That will be answered in Wednesday’s regular-season swansong with the current No. 7 seed Dallas Mavericks.
For Phoenix, Wednesday's finale must feel like a painful consolation: a road game against the Sacramento Kings, where Monday’s deafening crowds will give way to jaded Sleep Train Arena chatter of lottery picks and DeMarcus Cousins technicals.
Which, as ESPN.com’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss wrote Monday, may wind up the cruelest cut of all:
All of this is really a shame because the Suns are a rare lottery team that could actually matter if thrown into the postseason. High-variance squads like the Suns are the bane of favorites. Three-pointers are ammunition for David’s sling and give a team like the Suns a chance at beating a superior opponent over the course of a series.
If only the Suns knew how fervently those whose teams had long since been sunk—fans of the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, Detroit Pistons and so many other denizens of disappointment—had pulled for them, these plucky desert pests.
How they turned talk of tanking, a trope so overwrought you half expected an eponymous Miley Cyrus single, into pure basketball celebration.
Here was a team no one believed would break the Pacific Division basement, let alone vie for postseason seeding. It was captained by middlings, marshaled by a first-year coach and had a treasure trove of draft picks to its name.
But somewhere along the way, likely far earlier than we’re willing to admit, Jeff Hornacek drilled down and found the rudiments of something special. A team, no other word for it, that had zero interest in method acting its role as league losers, typecast tankers forced to sleep in broken trailers.
When the Suns won five straight to get to 14-9, we said, “Oh look, the tankers came to play!”
When they beat the Los Angeles Clippers by 19 to get to 19-11, we tipped our caps but somehow managed to laugh on the bow. “This can last for now, but not for long.”
When February found them at 29-18, a pleasant surprise amid the NBA’s winter doldrums: “Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, they’ll be back to earth.”
When a few March missteps forced them back below the playoff fold, suddenly we were sad. “These Suns. They really are fun.”
When they were fighting for their springtime lives, longtime cynics suddenly saw the light. “If rooting so hard for another team is wrong, I don’t want to be right.”
When they ran into the Memphis meat grinder, youth in revolt cut down in the prime of life, Dragic's ankle betraying him how he'd betrayed those of countless others, Phoenix—somehow rising through falling—finally found its voice.
"Tomorrow is going to be better."
Conjure a better, more poetically appropriate season epitaph, you simply can't.
Lest we lament too long the living, a reminder: Phoenix has three first-round picks in this June’s draft.
Appropriate, then, that we got this draft almost as wrong as we got the Suns. Far from being the franchise-changing event of 1996 or 2003, this year’s crop promises something else entirely: real, tangible depth.
Dragic and Bledsoe, Markieff and Marcus Morris, Miles Plumlee and P.J. Tucker: Phoenix doesn’t need game-changers. The Suns need roster-fillers; even if one of the three ends up hitting, a glorious coup.
The Suns may have lost Monday's battle, but come June 26—the day Brooklyn's Barclays Center plays host to draft-day hopes—they'll be the ones upon whom all eyes peer with a fear reserved only for NBA warlords to come.
The Lakers? They have their pick, of course, camera-ready and cast in the mold of a franchise savior. Missing the playoffs, then, is just a speed bump between banners.
The Knicks? They needed Phil Jackson to distract their fans from having ferried their first for Carmelo Anthony. This season was simply an aberration—the last, solemn stop before glory regained—for real this time.
The Suns? Those early expansion also-rans without a trophy? The team whose two lasting memories are a triple-overtime loss in a six-game defeat and fitting Michael Jordan’s third finger? What’s their story?
If Monday’s mandarin moon was any kind of omen, soaked in the glow of a setting sun soon to rise again, it’s fixing to be a good one.
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