The Cinderella Suns may be approaching midnight

Mar 13, 11:54 AM

Life in the Western Conference is terribly unfair.

While teams fail upwards into playoff spots in the East, two deserving teams in the West will be on the outside of the playoffs looking in when the season ends in mid-April. 

One, the Minnesota Timberwolves, would be a certain playoff team in the opposite conference. The other, a yet-to-be-determined squad, will have the gripe of ranking as perhaps the third best team in the East, were they able to swap conferences. (And that's just based on record, not to mention the difference in schedule quality.)

As unfortunate as it is given how exciting and surprising their season has been, that other team looks like it may be the Phoenix Suns.

The expectations for the Suns entering the season were extremely low, with nobody predicting any modicum of success. This was a rebuilding year, a chance to bottom out like the Philadelphia 76ers and then leverage four first-round draft picks in the loaded 2014 draft, instantly rebuilding around an Eric Bledsoe-led core.

Instead, the Suns shocked everyone, opening the season 24-17 despite trading away Marcin Gortat, not getting a single minute from Emeka Okafor and having Bledsoe active for just 24 of those games. Goran Dragic has become a borderline All-Star, Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee look like new men, the Morris twins have developed and Channing Frye has returned from a scary heart issue to once again provide premiere floor spacing.

Jeff Hornacek is a Coach of the Year candidate, Ryan McDonough is an Executive of the Year candidate far earlier than he surely thought, and any number of players on the team are Most Improved Player candidates.

It's been a lot of fun, as Cinderella stories tend to be. Unfortunately, there may not be a happy ending this year.

Bledsoe returned on Wednesday, playing 32 minutes off the bench, but the team came up short against the Cleveland Cavaliers, 110-101.

The loss dropped the Suns to 36-28 and pushed them two games back of the final playoff spot in the West. As unfair as it is, the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks are 39-27 and 38-26, respectively, holding appreciable edges given that just 18 games remain for Phoenix.

While it's nowhere near impossible - and count this Suns team out at your own peril - it seems unlikely Phoenix can close the gap. Their remaining schedule is arduous, with 12 road games to just six home games and 10 games against winning teams. They follow up a deadly three-game stretch in early April (all playoff teams) with an easier game and then a trip to San Antonio, who is likely to still be fighting for the conference's top seed.

Given this difficulty, not even the Suns' superior point differential appears capable of making up the difference. ESPN gives Phoenix just a 23.3 percent chance of making the playoffs, with Basketball Reference slightly more optimistic at 37.4 percent. They have less than a 50/50 shot, in short.

What these systems are essentially saying is that two games isn't a lot, but it is when only 18 remain.

On April 12 and April 14, the Suns play Dallas and Memphis, two of their final three games of the year. Should the Suns stay within a game or two until then, they'll hold their own destiny in their hands. Given how tough their road is to that point, however, that may be wishful thinking.

Feature photo courtesy of Jennifer Stewart / USA Today Sports

Apr 15, 8:59 AM

Reading List: Cinderella Suns eliminated from playoffs

Apr 15, 8:59 AM

On Monday night, the Phoenix Suns lost to the Memphis Grizzlies, eliminating them from the Western Conference playoff picture.

It seems unfair, and not just because the Suns are 47-34, a mark that would be good for fifth in the Eastern Conference. It's unfair because this was a fun team, and a surprising team that was expected to be among the tankers rather than the contenders.

The coaching of Jeff Hornacek, the career renaissance of Gerald Green, the return of Channing Frye, the improvement of Miles Plumlee and Markieff Morris, the leap that Goran Dragic took, the exciting though oft-absent play of Eric Bledsoe, these elements captured the attention and rooting interest of many basketball fans. Memphis and Dallas are deserving of playoff spots, too, but the clock striking midnight on this story at the 11th hour, rather than after a playoff reward, is unfitting.

On the bright side, the Suns own four first-round draft picks this year and appear poised to be major players moving forward. This year's success didn't set them back in a rebuild but rather pushed them forward, revealing a core that can be supplemented rather than replaced.

But for now, it's all quite disappointing. Here's a quick lap around the internet to see how people are reacting.

Michael Schwartz of the TrueHoop Network examines how this playoff miss is easier to swallow than previous misses for the franchise:

Yet unlike after their previous three playoff misses -- the first two with the franchise still hanging on to the Nash era, the last with a team lacking talent and cohesion -- this time it's not hard to envision a quick return to prominence in the desert, especially with six first-round picks coming Phoenix's way in the next two drafts.

Users of R/NBA seem to be distraught, but scooper1030 is keeping an optimistic view:

This was never supposed to be the year.

This was only the first phase of the master plan.
...
How do 6 first-round picks in two years sound?

How about $20 million in cap space?

The youth that is already on this team will only get better.
...
Stay tuned. And fear the Sun, my friends.

Dave King of Bright Side of the Sun relays a quote from Bledsoe, who seems to be on the same page as R/NBA:

Just got to take all the positives, the positives of this whole season. Now, everybody got a little bit of experience going into next year, what it takes to take it to the next level. Everybody hasn't been in this situation before. Like I said, next year we take it to the next level.

Kevin Zimmerman of Valley of the Suns laments the poor showing from just the fourth sellout crowd of the season:

It was just the fourth sellout of the year but the crowd wasn’t in the game from the beginning. Phoenix’s play to start the game didn’t quite warrant excitement, and the energy in the arena was more nervous than hopeful.

There was a spark in the second half, but there were still spells of anxiety in the stands.

And finally, Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic relays quotes from a trio of key Suns figures:

Horncaek: "If we had three All-Stars and don't make the playoffs, then you go, 'Oh, my goodness,' but we had guys who proved they can play in this league and play at a high level. I thought we did the best we could."

Dragic: "It's always tough when you finish the season and then you look back and you're saying, 'OK, the game against the Lakers (a 115-99 loss on at March 30), we should've won that, a game against Sacramento (lost twice in Sacramento). You have to take care of business home and away against those teams that are not so successful. It's really tough when you have to play the last three games against San Antonio, Dallas and Memphis and we came out short."

Frye: "Those playoff teams are veteran teams. They know different situations, so there's no thinking. They're constantly changing things up to get us out of our rhythm. For us, sometimes, we take a minute or two and look back, like, 'Oh, what's this?'"

Feature photo courtesy of Joe Camporeale / USA Today Sports

Apr 12, 8:41 AM

Suns, Grizzlies and Mavs set for 'tournament' for final two playoff spots

Apr 12, 8:41 AM

A whole lot happened in the Western Conference playoff picture on Friday night, and it has three teams looking at what amounts to a mini-tournament of sorts to determine the final two playoff spots in the West.

Dallas sits in seventh at 48-32, a half-game ahead of both Memphis and Phoenix, who are 47-32. Over the final five days of the season, each team will play each other, games of unbelievable enormity for the playoff structure.

RankTeamRecordOpponents
7Dallas48-32PHX, @MEM
8Memphis47-32@LAL, @PHX, DAL
9Phoenix47-32@DAL, MEM, @SAC

While Memphis and Phoenix both have additional games remaining, they are relatively likely victories. That means that each team should have a 48-32 record, plus however they do against each other in the coming days.

Saturday, April 12 - Phoenix @ Dallas
Monday, April 14 - Memphis @ Phoenix
Wednesday, April 16 - Dallas @ Memphis

It's pretty incredible that the final two playoff spots will come down to such a tight set of games.

Should two teams tie for the final spot, the primary tiebreaker is head-to-head record, and should all three tie, the tiebreakers is joint record between all tied teams, making these games even more important.

TiebreakerPhoenixDallasMemphisBoth
Phoenixx1-10-31-4
Dallas1-1x3-04-1
Memphis3-00-3x3-3

Clearly, Phoenix is in the most precarious position, needing to beat Dallas for sure and/or finish ahead of Memphis. Dallas is in the driver's seat when it comes to tiebreakers.

So, if you can't wait a week for the playoffs, just tune in this week, because the bottom of the West is already basically in double-elimination tournament mode.

Feature photo courtesy of Justin Ford / USA Today Sports

Apr 11, 10:27 AM

Phoenix Suns facing a critical four-day stretch

Apr 11, 10:27 AM

It all comes down to this.

The Phoenix Suns' incredible Cinderella season, during which they jumped from perceived tanking fodder to legitimate Western Conference playoff threat, hangs in the balance over the next four days.

The schedule is unkind, but it also provides the Suns with a great opportunity.

Friday - @ San Antonio
Saturday - @ Dallas
Monday - vs. Memphis

The dreaded two-game Texas swing is never an easy one, and Saturday's game could prove Phoenix's most important of the season. The fact that it's on the second night of a back-to-back is unfortunate, and the Mavericks will be rested. At the very least, a potentially huge Monday game is back at home and catches Memphis in that same back-to-back situation.

As for why these games are so critical, one needs to look no further than the current Western Conference standings.

RankTeamW-LGBOpponents
6Golden State48-30-@LAL, @POR, MIN, @DEN
7Phoenix47-311@SA, @DAL, MEM, @SAC
8Dallas48-321PHX, @MEM
9Memphis46-322PHI, @LAL, @PHX, DAL

While Phoenix appears insulated with a one-game cushion, look at Memphis' next two games: they draw the league's second- and sixth-worst teams. Assuming the Grizzlies win both of those and Phoenix loses to the Spurs (not necessarily a fair assumption, especially if Goran Dragic is able to suit up), Saturday's game against Dallas becomes a huge swing game.

In short, the Suns hold their fate in their own hands. The Spurs are a tough test but are also one win or Thunder loss from clinching home court throughout the playoffs, so the Suns may get lucky and draw a resting San Antonio outfit. They then have two must-win games, with no wiggle room on the "must" part.

Let's take a look at the scenarios over the next four days, and how the standings could look on Tuesday morning (we'll assume the better team wins each of the non-Suns games).

Suns go 3-0 - Suns in, Dal@Mem becomes play-in game

RankTeamW-LGBOpponents
6Golden State50-31-@DEN
7Phoenix50-31-@SAC
8Dallas48-332@MEM
9Memphis48-332DAL

Suns go 2-1 - Suns likely in, depending on where the loss comes

RankTeamW-LGBOpponents
6Golden State50-31-@DEN
7Phoenix49-321@SAC
8Dallas49-32/48-331 or 2@MEM
9Memphis49-32/48-331 or 2DAL

Suns go 1-2 - Suns need a great deal of help if they lose to DAL and MEM

RankTeamW-LGBOpponents
6Golden State50-31-@DEN
7Dallas49-321@MEM
8Memphis49-321DAL
9Phoenix48-332@SAC

Suns go 0-3 - Suns out

RankTeamW-LGBOpponents
6Golden State50-31-@DEN
7Dallas49-321@MEM
8Memphis49-321DAL
9Phoenix47-343@SAC

Obviously, there's a lot up in the air here with which games the Suns win and lose, and what Dallas and Memphis are able to do. The Suns have what amounts to a layup in their final game, but they enter that knowing that one of Memphis and Dallas has to earn a win, since they play each other.

It's a stressful time to be a Suns fan, to be sure, but at the very least, their fate is in their own hands.

Feature photo courtesy of Crystal LoGiudice / USA Today Sports