No one can fault the Phoenix Suns too much for not being able to climb the Western Conference standings with Eric Bledsoe missing 36 games on the season. Goran Dragic has been sensational and role players like Gerald Green and Markieff Morris have taken on massive increases in responsibility, but the surprising Suns are starting to lose ground again in the Western playoff race. If the desert Cinderellas don’t want the clock to strike midnight on their season, there are a couple of things that need tending to for a brutal upcoming stretch.
Phoenix only had a half-game lead over the Memphis Grizzlies for that last playoff spot in the West. After dropping a home game against the Los Angeles Clippers Tuesday night, the Suns next three games are against the Oklahoma City Thunder at home, the Golden State Warriors on the road and a rematch with the Clippers at Staples Center. Not exactly an ideal lineup for a team that’s 5-5 in its last 10 games and needs to keep winning to stay alive in the playoff race.
The Grizzlies, meanwhile, face a much more preferable path in their next three games: at the Brooklyn Nets, at the Chicago Bulls and versus the Charlotte Bobcats. If the Suns want to keep their advantage over the Grizzlies intact, they need to win at least two of their next three games, and that’s assuming the Griz help out and drop one of their next three.
How do they do that against three formidable Western Conference playoff teams? For one thing, it starts on the defensive end. As the Suns saw last night, they need to bring the defensive intensity every minute they’re on the floor. Holding the Clippers to 104 points isn’t terrible, but letting Matt Barnes go off for 18 of his 28 points in the third quarter helped Lob City turn an 11-point halftime deficit into an eight-point advantage heading into the fourth. Those kind of defensive letdowns can’t happen.
The Clippers are the second-highest scoring team in the NBA and the Thunder aren’t far behind at sixth. Although the Warriors are even further behind at 10th in scoring, with shooters like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson (not to mention David Lee in the post), Golden State is never more than a heat check away from burying a team that doesn’t bring its A-game defensively.
To make things worse, those three teams are all in the top 15 in points allowed (with the Thunder and Warriors in the top 10). Dragic is allowed to have a night off every now and then, since he’s only human. But last night Chris Paul came out to make a statement with his defense and held the Dragon to 14 points and nine assists as Dragic shot just 5-of-14 from the floor. Now that teams are starting to respect the Slovenian’s game and focus in on him to prevent the Suns offense from going off, life is going to be a lot harder on Phoenix as long as Eric Bledsoe remains sidelined.
Speaking of Bledsoe, his return would take a lot of that pressure off of Dragic. Though he’s starting participating in practice again and is inching towards playing again, there’s still no timetable for his return. Bledsoe’s perimeter defense has been sorely missed, but it probably doesn’t help that the Suns are also giving up 110.3 points per game in their last six. If the Suns want to make the postseason, it could very well come down to how much ground they can hold on the Grizzlies in the next few games. To have any chance of winning those tough matchups, it starts with defense. Or Goran Dragic scoring 40 again.