The buzz of the surprise team of the 2013-14 season is starting to wear off. Normally it’d be time to take another swig, but we’ve all been drinking this fun juice for 56 games already. Do we keep drinking or is it time to go home? In other words, coming off back-to-back losses at home, it’s now a fair question to ask: Are the playoffs starting to slip away from the pleasantly surprising Phoenix Suns?
With 25 games left to play, the Suns sit in the last available playoff spot, 1.5 games ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies and 5.5 games ahead of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the latest team to come into Phoenix and get a big road win. The Grizzlies have won 11 of their last 15 games and are enjoying a healthy Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. The Wolves have been riding the All-NBA talents of Kevin Love all season long, but they’ve started to make good on their surprisingly good point-differential and have won four of their last five games. As for the Suns? They’re still missing Eric Bledsoe … and Goran Dragic may have tweaked his ankle in the third quarter of Tuesday night’s game.
Nobody’s making excuses for the Suns; the Wolves have more cause for complaining about injury woes than any playoff hopeful team with Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin both missing significant time this season. But Chase Budinger has returned, guys like Dante Cunningham and even Shabazz Muhammad are starting to give the Wolves meaningful minutes and it won’t be long before both Martin and Pekovic are back on the floor. The Suns still don’t have a timetable for Bledsoe’s return and if the Dragon’s ankle is even a remotely serious problem, Phoenix’s playoff odds go down the drain.
— Matt Petersen (@TheMattPetersen) February 26, 2014
Dragic had to leave the game in the third quarter and went to the training room to have his ankle re-taped. But he returned in the game (only to foul out). In that 3:46 the Suns had to play without him, Phoenix fans got a good look at what to expect if Dragic’s ankle isn’t ready to go after tweaking it last night. In the game’s final minutes without the Dragon, the Suns went 1-for-9 from the field and were outscored 15-6. Ish Smith, who had been having a terrific game to that point, understandably disappeared under the pressure of having to conduct the offense without the reassurance the Dragic would eventually take over.
Smith had seven points and seven assists off the bench and, as always, was a welcome burst of energy and speed for the reserves. But the Suns couldn’t execute on either end without their floor general down the stretch and at this point, Dragic missing even a single game the rest of the season could hurt Phoenix’s chances of making the postseason.
Why? Just take a look at the Suns’ tough schedule the rest of the way. Of their remaining 25 games, 15 are against Western Conference teams. Of those 15, 11 come against playoff-bound or playoff hopeful teams: the Oklahoma City Thunder (twice), Los Angeles Clippers (three times), San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves. With the Grizzlies and playoff-desperate Wolves hot on their heels, the Suns’ margin for error gets smaller every single day.
All in all, the Suns are still okay. They’ve got a respectable lead over Memphis and even in defeat, have been competitive with everyone. But unlike past games, the Suns have struggled to execute down the stretch. Dragic fouling out hurt last night, but Phoenix was already in danger of falling apart before the Dragon picked up his sixth. However, the Suns have a +3.2 point differential, good for eighth in the West. And according to John Hollinger’s Playoff Odds on ESPN.com, Phoenix makes the playoffs in 73.8 percent of 5,000 computer simulations.
But it wasn’t too long ago that the Suns had hopes of gaining a playoff seed higher than their point differential indicated. An imminent Eric Bledsoe return could be the only thing that would keep that dream from slipping away, because it’s unclear how much longer the West’s biggest All-Star snub can carry this team for, even with Markieff Morris having three consecutive huge nights. Before, the Dragon was raining down fireball 3s on his enemies. Now, the Suns are running on Dragon fumes and it’s unclear how much longer they can hold out.