Vince Carter #25 of the Phoenix Suns lies on the court as Doc Rivers of the Boston Celtics signals that Carter needs help at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. Carter did not return to the game. The Celtics defeated the Suns 115-103. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
With 21 games remaining in their season, the Phoenix Suns are in the thick of the Western Conference Playoff Race. Here's a breakdown of what's to come.
Yesterday, I had it in my mind that I was going to put together a post on the five games that were going to define the remainder of the Phoenix Suns season. Then I looked at the schedule.
By the time I was two weeks deep, I already had a laundry list of important games -- basically almost all of them are going to be vital. That considered, I've decided to break the remainder of the Suns schedule into different stretches. Since college basketball is hot right now and people tend to name every week something clever (i.e. rivalry week, championship week, home court week), I'll do the same; hopefully it will catch on.
But if we're going to delve into what the Suns have left, we need to know where the Suns are now. Thus, we're all in need of a little ...
As of this morning, the Phoenix Suns sit at a record of 32-29. Now catch your breath and attempt to get over the fact that they've already lost more games than they did a season ago. Due to the scrappy Grizzlies deciding they wanted to steal a road game from Dallas, the Suns find themselves a game-and-a-half back of Memphis for the eighth seed in the West.
Within reason, the Suns could finish the season anywhere from the fifth seed in the West to 11th. A look at where we currently stand (games back being from Denver's position):
Team Record Games Back
5. Denver 37-27 --
6. New Orleans 37-28 .5
7. Portland 35-27 1
8. Memphis 35-29 2
9. Phoenix 32-29 3.5
10. Utah 33-30 3.5
11. Houston 32-32 5
As you can see, things are tight. It stands to reason that a minimum of 45 wins (and probably 46) is going to be required to make your way into the Western Conference playoffs.
So let's go ahead and break down the Suns' remaining stretches:
Friends & Playoff Rivals Stretch (March 8 - March 16):
Beginning Tuesday, the Suns begin what is quite possibly the most important five-game stretch remaining in their season. Sure, they'll play more important games toward the end of the season, but flash back up to the standings and then look at who the team is playing:
v. Houston (3/8), v. Denver (3/10), v. Orlando (3/12), @ Houston (3/14), @ New Orleans (3/16)
In the space of eight days, the Suns are taking on five teams that are .500 or better -- including four against Western foes.
The Suns' recent history against Houston gives reason for optimism, as it has been all Phoenix. The last six battles -- split out over three different seasons -- have all wound up with the good guys on top. For reference's sake, the last time Houston beat Phoenix (March 6, 2009), Aaron Brooks led the Rockets with 30 points in a starting lineup featuring Ron Artest, Yao Ming and Shane Battier. And the last time Houston beat the Suns in Phoenix, this happened:
Houston's season has actually been a bit similar to the Suns, as they've made their playoff push beginning in February. On the morning of Feb. 2, Houston was 22-28; since then, they are 10-4. It also warrants mentioning that since the Goran Dragic-Aaron Brooks deal, they are 4-1.
From the all-important back-to-back standpoint, the Rockets are coming into Phoenix on the back end of a two-game set while the Suns are returning the back-to-back favor for the March 14 game. The home game with Houston is a must win, while the road game is one they should win if they plan on being a playoff team, but a loss to Houston would not be devastating.
Not to be outdone by Houston's streak of winless games against the Suns, Denver -- who comes to town two days after the Rockets -- hasn't beaten Phoenix in any of their 12 trips to the Valley since Steve Nash returned in 2004.
Most believed Denver wasn't long for this world when they dealt long-time star Carmelo Anthony to New York, but the team has remained steady, going 4-2 since the big deal, with wins over Boston, Atlanta, and Utah. One may wonder if that was just an initial us-against-the-world burst, though, as in their last outing, they were outplayed in a loss to the Clippers. It also warrants mentioning that they may be without new acquisition Danilo Gallinari for the game as he suffers with a toe injury. I'd call this one a must win.
Not a ton of analysis to throw at the Orlando game, but it will mark the Phoenix return of 2010 playoff hero Jason Richardson, along with his old pals Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark. The Magic are a solid top four seed in the East and what may help the Suns is that they could be looking forward to a game with the Lakers on the next night. I wouldn't expect the Suns to pull this one out, but at home and on national TV, who knows. I'll call it a loss.
It remains to be seen what the Suns are going to get when they travel to New Orleans, but with the way the Hornets have looked recently, the answer is not much. After a Jan. 26 win over Golden State, New Orleans was 31-16. Since that game, they are just 6-12. Those 12 losses include falling to Sacramento, Minnesota, New Jersey and Toronto -- a murderer's row that is not.
Add to the Hornets' recent troubles, the news that Chris Paul was carried off on a stretcher during last night's win over Cleveland and the Suns need to win this one, road game or not.
All in all, if the Suns are able to manage a 4-1 record over this stretch, they should be able to lift themselves into the Top 8 while throwing a serious wrench in the Rockets' playoff hopes. The team probably can't afford worse than 3-2.
Cali-Canada Stretch (March 18 - March 23):
Provided the Suns get out of the Friends & Playoff Rivals Stretch in good shape, they've got the aptly named Cali-Canada stretch to greet them:
v. Golden State (3/18), @ Clippers (3/20), @ Lakers (3/22), v. Toronto (3/23)
The Warriors have already won more games (27) than they did all of last season (26) and are certainly dangerous with a solid core of Steph Curry, Monta Ellis, and David Lee. But the Suns have wiped them away three times already this season. Golden State has been a scrappier battle for the Suns at Oracle Arena, but they've been relatively punchless in 11 consecutive losses in Phoenix (dating back to March 18, 2005). Big time must win.
Phoenix makes the Staples trip next, first taking on a Clippers team that defeated the Suns the day after Christmas and then a Lakers team they actually beat in December.
That last game with the Clippers was the second in the Suns careers for Marcin Gortat and Mickael PIetrus, and prior to Vince Carter playing his first game. The Clip show was playing decent basketball in December and January, but went 2-12 in February. Blake Griffin show or not, this is a must win.
Hard to really talk about a game with the Lakers on the road. For Phoenix to win in November, the team had to hit a franchise record 22 three-pointers. Unless that happens again, I'll mark this one down as a nearly guaranteed loss.
Toronto has one of the worst records in the NBA, they're talent deficient, and the Suns punished them a couple weeks ago. The Suns may be coming off the bad end of a back-to-back, but this is a must win. If they have to rest the entire roster against the Lakers the previous night, they should do it.
Once this stretch is done, the Suns better have posted a 3-1 record at worst.
Revenge Sandwich Stretch:
What's a revenge sandwich you may ask? Well look at the stretch:
v. New Orleans (3/25), v. Dallas (3/27), @ Sacramento (3/29), v. Oklahoma City (3/30), v. Clippers (4/1)
See what I did there? The Suns don't need to get revenge on the Hornets (yet) and theoretically they'll have won their last contest with the Clippers, but in between, they have three games where they'll desire hot, steamy revenge.
To start with the bread of the sandwich, we've covered who and what the Hornets are above, but make no bones about it: this is another huge game. Fortunately for the Suns, New Orleans will be coming into Phoenix the night after a road contest in Utah, so there's an advantage. That, plus what I'd imagine is the continuing collapse of the Hornets, makes this a game the Suns should win.
On the back end of the revenge sandwich is a home game against the Clippers. If you want to make the playoffs, you beat the Clippers at home -- it really is as simple as that. Must win.
The meat of the sandwich -- where the delectable revenge exists -- includes Top Four teams in the West in Dallas/Oklahoma City and a trip to Sacramento.
Dallas has had control of the Suns of late, winning the season series each of the last three years and both matchups this year. Phoenix hasn't haven't been swept by Dallas in a season series since 1987-88 and to avoid that, they'll need to claim one of their final two with the Mavs -- this being the most likely one. It helps that Dallas is in Utah the night before the game, but I think the Suns will fail to get revenge here in a loss.
Since I'm writing this the day after the Suns lost to Oklahoma City for the second time in their three meetings this year where both games were marked by questionable referee decisions, my desire for revenge is on high. Grant Hill always seems to give Kevin Durant a tough time and Vince Carter has saved some of his best performances for the Thunder, so I'll go out on a limb here and say the Suns will want it as bad as I do and can win this one.
When the Suns look back on their season and perhaps are a game or two out of the playoffs or away from a seed they would have liked to move up to, they can point to two losses to the Sacramento Kings. The future Anaheim franchise is one of the worst in the league, but for some reason, the Suns let down enough in the second half on two occasions to let them steal wins. That cannot happen this time. This is a must win.
The Revenge Sandwich Stretch features four home games, but isn't easy. Before they head out on the road, the Suns will need to deliver at least 3-2 -- 4-1 if they can get by Oklahoma City.
What Did We Do To The Schedule Makers Road Trip Stretch:
There's really no clever way to nickname this one. It's a five-game road trip that takes the Suns all over the place and puts them in front of some of the best teams in the league. Yikes.
@ San Antonio (4/3), @ Chicago (4/5), @ Minnesota (4/6), @ New Orleans (4/8), @ Dallas (4/10)
By early April, the Spurs will probably still have something to play for and they'll be rested and not looking forward to another game on the schedule. The Suns actually looked pretty competitive the last time they were down at the Alamo and they did so without all their new acquisitions. But have you seen the Spurs this year? They win. A lot. I'd imagine this one is going as a loss. On to the next.
If any Suns fans haven't been following the Bulls since they came to Phoenix in November, they're a completely different team. When you last saw Chicago, they were the beneficiary of a double-overtime win the Suns basically handed to them, but at the time, they were slumping with high expectations, adjustments to a new head coach, and a noticeable lack of Carlos Boozer.
In fact, the Bulls were 9-8 just over a week after their game with the Suns. Since then? Well, they are just 34-10. They also happen to be 26-4 at home. Unless you're a big time dreamer, you can't see this as anything but a loss.
The next night, the Suns have a game in Minnesota. The Wolves have double-double machine Kevin Love and the reformed Michael Beasley, but they've been playing out the string since November. This is a must win and the one on the road trip the Suns have to have.
I've drilled New Orleans into the ground in this piece, so we're pretty well covered here. Odds are when these teams get together in the second week of March, it'll be another big game between teams relatively close in the standings -- though I think, with the direction the teams are heading, they could be in opposite spots than they are now. To have a decent trip, the Suns need this one, but I don't think they'll get it. It's hard to predict they'll take all three Hornets games the rest of the year.
In the road trip getaway game, the Suns head back to Dallas, where they've not won since March 14, 2007. Wishing and hoping for this to be the one is cool, but it's probably not happening.
Phoenix absolutely has to beat Minnesota and then has to find a way to win at least one of the other four to stay above water. 2-3 is probably the worst they can do; anything above that is gravy.
Send Gregg Popovich A Fruit Basket Stretch:
v. Minnesota (4/11), v. San Antonio (4/13)
I certainly mean no offense to the Minnesota Timberwolves when I named this mini stretch of two games. Okay, I'm kidding -- I completely meant offense.
If the Suns are still in the thick of the playoff hunt and can't win a game against one of the worst teams in the league, at home, and with everything on the line ... well, then they don't deserve to go to the playoffs. Must win and it isn't even close.
So what this stretch is all about is San Antonio. Obviously, I don't know where the Suns are going to be on the final day of the season, but I'm fairly certain I know where the Spurs will be. As of now the team holds a 5.5 game lead for the top seed in the Western Conference and a four-game lead in the race for home court advantage throughout the playoffs. Odds are they'll be playing for neither at that point so we should be sending Pop a fruit basket in hopes he'll rest his relevant players and let the Suns feast on Steve Novak and James Anderson. This will be a must win.
Coming off the long road trip, nothing less than 2-0 will work.
All in all I think the Suns will need to and can finish the year 14-7 - which would give them 46 wins and probably be enough to get them in the playoffs. Please realize that none of this takes into account a negative diagnosis for the separated shoulder of Channing Frye. If he's out for any significant period of time then that's a game changer.
Starting sometime this week (aka whenever I feel like it) I'll probably start posting daily Western Conference Playoff Reports on Bright Side of the Sun as I did last season. Feel free to check me out over there - or here. Or wherever.