You have to hand it to the Phoenix Suns: they compete night in and night out, no matter what the circumstances are. This team easily could have caved when Eric Bledsoe went down with a knee injury, but they’ve hung tough and stayed relatively level in the playoff picture without their most promising piece. To put it simply, Jeff Hornacek knows what he’s doing and has gotten this team of role players to buy in.
Unfortunately, every team goes through its fair share of ups and downs in an 82-game season and the “Suns of Anarchy” are currently sliding closer and closer to the edge of the playoff precipice. Despite Goran Dragic‘s superhuman efforts after his All-Star snub, inspired play from Markieff Morris off the bench and a barrage of three-pointers raining down in Phoenix, the Suns have now lost three of their last four games and are seventh in the West (thanks to the Dallas Mavericks also dropping their game last night).
The problem? The Phoenix Suns are one piece away from being a real playoff contender. “Championship contender” is a bit strong, but a playoff contender? Sure. Last night’s agonizing loss to the Miami Heat showed that although this team can compete with anyone, they just need one more weapon to add to an already surprisingly vast arsenal. Because Hornacek and the Suns learned last night that when Dragic isn’t putting up big numbers, like he did against Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors on Saturday, this team doesn’t have the firepower to compete with the NBA’s elite.
For anyone who doesn’t live in the Phoenix area, Goran Dragic has been having an incredible season and is officially delivering on the “successor to Steve Nash” dream hype. Before last night’s game against the Heat, the Dragon had scored 20+ points in seven straight games, easily the longest streak of his career. He was averaging 26.9 points, 6.1 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 62.7 percent from the field and 63.3 percent from three-point range in the seven games leading up to last night.
But Miami showed what could happen to the Suns when a (sometimes) elite defense keys in on the Dragon. With a flurry of double-teams, the Heat forced the ball out of Dragic’s hands and even into the hands of awaiting defenders a few times. They constantly threw fresh legs at him to harass him, tire him out and prevent him from getting into a groove offensively. And although Dragic finished with 15 points and nine assists, the defense bothered him enough to prevent Gogi from going off and helping the Suns win at home.
That’s not to say other guys were incapable of stepping up with Dragic having his first off night in the last three weeks. Gerald Green led the Suns with 26 points on 9-of-14 shooting and kept Phoenix in the game when both teams started trading three-pointers like haymakers in a heavyweight bout. Channing Frye had 15, Markieff Morris had 12 off the bench and P.J. Tucker did it all with 14 points, eight rebounds and five assists (plus guarding LeBron James all night).
But here’s the thing: do any of those stat lines jump off the page other than Gerald Green’s? The issue isn’t whether or not the Suns have the competent pieces around its best players to compete. The issue is whether or not the Suns have a backup plan when Dragic has one of his rare off nights thanks to the kind of elite defensive pressure Phoenix will see in the playoffs (unless they get matched up with the Portland Trail Blazers, of course).
Normally this wouldn’t be a problem if Eric Bledsoe were healthy. But unfortunately, that’s not the reality and this team may have to compete in the postseason without him if there are any setbacks to his recovery. It’s not like the game wasn’t up for the taking. Against one of the four true title contenders in the NBA, the Suns were in a position to win on their home floor. But they just didn’t have a knockout punch to take some of that pressure off of Dragic, who was getting swarmed all night long.
The attention that the Heat paid to Dragic tonight is confirmation that they considered him an All-Star. And he should be one.
— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) February 12, 2014
Look at the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns roster for a second. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Did you happen to see one single star name? Unless you’ve followed the Suns for years, you didn’t know Goran Dragic was good until this season. Nobody knew Eric Bledsoe could be a star until this season, but his year has been cut to pieces by injuries. In other words, the Suns are just one compatible piece, one upgrade, away from being a dangerous playoff opponent.
Who that piece is remains to be seen. With Emeka Okafor‘s expiring contract and a slew of draft picks to offer, the Suns will be one of the most active and interesting teams to watch before the Feb. 20 trade deadline. Names like Thaddeus Young, Pau Gasol, Gordon Hayward, Greg Monroe and even Kevin Love have been tossed around. It depends on the package the Suns put together of course, but if general manager Ryan McDonough can nab that kind of talent without derailing the team’s current chemistry, this team could be deceptively dangerous come playoff time. They just need that one additional piece.