Forget about the fact that the Phoenix Suns have lost two games in a row. Forget about the fact that the desert Cinderellas (or Sanderellas, if you will) are now half a game behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth spot in the Western Conference. And forget about the fact that this team has been running on Dragon fumes for a couple of weeks now. With the return of Eric Bledsoe Wednesday, it’s still too early to count the Suns out.
Bledsoe hasn’t played since Dec. 30 against his former team, the Los Angeles Clippers. He’s missed 33 games because of a knee injury and surgery and while Goran Dragic has played at an MVP-level with Bledsoe sidelined, the Suns have largely hovered around the .500 mark, which just isn’t enough to cut it in the brutally competitive Western Conference. After last night’s loss to the Clippers, Phoenix fell behind the Memphis Grizzlies by a half-game.
Since Memphis owns the tiebreaker over the Suns, Phoenix has to finish with a better record than either Memphis or the Dallas Mavericks to make the postseason. But even with an All-NBA point guard in Dragic, Gerald Green playing out of his mind in the past few weeks and Markieff Morris presenting himself as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, the Suns just haven’t had enough in the tank to pull out the wins they need.
Phoenix’s defense is the main problem. In their last nine games, the Suns have given up an appalling 112 points per game to their opponents. It’s not surprising Phoenix has gone 3-6 during that stretch, even if they have been competitive in nearly every game (at least, every game that the Dragon has played). In their last four games, the Suns have given up six quarters of 30 points or more. In the third quarter during that span, the Suns have given up an average of 34 points and have been outscored by 30 in total.
Bledsoe can help with that. Though his increased role in the offense has hurt his defensive intensity at times, Bledsoe is still a bulldog on the perimeter who can stop penetration with his strength and speed. No offense to Goran Dragic or Gerald Green, but they’re not the kind of perimeter defenders the Suns can rely on to get stops right now. Bledsoe alleviates some of that pressure.
Of course, Eric Bledsoe’s balanced stat line of 18 points, 5.8 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game will help on the offensive end as well. Not only from a pure statistical perspective, but also because Goran Dragic will be that much harder to stop now. Without Bledsoe, defenses have been able to key in on Dragic and double-team him to get the ball out of his hands. Even with Green averaging 22.4 points per game since the All-Star break ended, this offense is 10 times more deadly with Dragic and Bledsoe operating out of the pick and rolls and pick and pops with Channing Frye, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris. In other words, it can’t be Enter The Dragon mode every night.
With Dragic playing at such a high level, even with defenses devoting almost all of their attention to shutting him down, you can expect the Dragon to be even more efficient even if the basic points and assists per game don’t reflect it. Bledsoe has said he expects to return Charlie’s Angels 2 style (full throttle), so if he can be believed, it won’t be long before Bledsoe has taken over Green’s job as the starting shooting guard.
That brings us to the question of what happens to Green once that day comes. As a definite Most Improved Player of the Year candidate, Green is playing the best basketball of his career. He has the green (HA!) light to shoot and has been doing a pretty good job at that recently. But when Green was relegated to bench duty earlier in the season, he struggled with his shot and confidence at times. Green will keep his starting job until Bledsoe proves he’s healthy and back in shape, so it will be vital for the Suns to get the same kind of production out of him in bench minutes.
The Suns aren’t dead in the water by any means. The only problem is Phoenix doesn’t have an easy road to the end of the season. Of their 19 remaining games, the Suns play 12 on the road, 10 are against teams currently at .500 or better and 11 are against teams either in the playoffs or desperately fighting for the playoff lives. Bledsoe’s health is the number one concern and he is right to wait until he’s completely healthy to return. It’s not time to panic, because the Suns compete with everyone and they have some winnable games ahead. But there isn’t much room for error for Bledsoe and the Sanderellas any more.