The Suns entered Friday night's game with the Hornets clinging to slim hopes of still making the postseason. With New Orleans three spots ahead of them in the playoff race, and with the team losing star forward David West the night before with a torn ACL that will keep him out the rest of the season, this appeared to be a great opportunity for Phoenix to begin to make its desperate but still plausible march up the standings.
Unfortunately, by the time the night was over, they simply didn't have the bodies to do so. The Suns lost Robin Lopez to foul trouble, Vince Carter to a stomach ailment, and Marcin Gortat to a broken nose before losing the game to the Hornets late, 106-100.
If the loss wasn't the final dagger to the team's playoff aspirations, it was something close.
"I would say it's like a stab close to the heart," Dudley said. "It's not over, but it hurts. Especially at home against a team that we're trying to chase."
The regrettable part for the Suns is, they led most of the way. But those personnel losses were too much.
Lopez hasn't provided the team much lately, but the 2:25 he played in the first quarter was laughable, and easily one of his worst of the season. Lopez managed to pick up three personal fouls and a technical in that time, before head coach Alvin Gentry mercifully sent him to the bench.
Gortat was inserted earlier than usual as Lopez's replacement, and he had a huge impact on the game with 18 points and 10 rebounds in just over 27 minutes of action. But Gortat broke his nose after a collision with Steve Nash with four minutes remaining in the third, and did not return. He was heading to the doctor after the game, and at this point is questionable for Sunday's game against Dallas.
Carter did not immediately return to the Suns' bench for the second half, and Dudley started as his replacement. Carter made it to the bench a few minutes into the third quarter, but did not play the entire second half. I asked Gentry if Carter was available to play, and he didn't seem to know, or at the very least didn't want to discuss it.
"I don't know, you'll have to ask the doctor," Gentry answered.
Not that it would have mattered, considering Carter was scoreless in the nine-plus minutes he did log, and also allowed Hornets players to get around him for offensive rebounds.
Dudley elaborated on Carter's condition, since Carter -- along with Steve Nash, and others -- took off immediately afterward without speaking to reporters.
"I think he had a virus, he was in the restroom the whole halftime," Dudley said. "Might be something he ate or something."
With all of these players missing in action, it's not surprising that the Suns bench outscored that of the Hornets 65-40. But in the second half, New Orleans was able to make adjustments -- switching on screens, adapting to the Suns' occasional use of the zone defense, creating favorable mismatches for Chris Paul -- that ended up being the difference.
Nash finished the night just 1 for 9 from the field, with three points and eight assists, in almost 35 minutes. His poor statistical line included a seriously questionable piece of decision-making down the stretch, with his team leading by one and just 2:41 remaining.
Coming out of a timeout, Nash dribbled to the top of the three-point arc and immediately launched a three-pointer that rimmed out. He had a full shot clock at the time, and can arguably get that shot whenever he wants. The Hornets immediately went on a 7-2 run from there that put the game in their hands for good.
Aaron Brooks played exceptionally well offensively, making tough shot after tough shot and finished with 17 points in just over 15 minutes, on 7 of 9 shooting, and added three assists. He seemed fine, however, with being subbed out for the game's final five minutes.
"No," Brooks answered, when asked if he was disappointed he didn't get to finish the game. "I mean, I'm going out there to do my job, It's my job to go out there and kind of sustain the lead and try to get it to Steve to close it out. I played alright, but I wish we could have gotten the win."
That seemed to be the consensus on this night -- that the effort was there, but that the losses in talent and lack of execution down the stretch were too much to handle. Grant Hill summed it up rather concisely, saying "We weren't aggressive, we weren't sharp. A lot of reasons, but no excuses."
The Suns playoff chances took a big hit on Friday, but as you might expect, the team has vowed to keep playing until it has officially been counted out.
"We're going to keep playing," Gentry promised. "Our goal is still to make the playoffs. It might be a long shot, but it doesn't matter. We'll keep competing and we'll keep playing extremely hard and we'll do the very best we can.
"We're not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, so no one should be shutting it down," Dudley said. "You get paid to play and do the best job, so I'll be ready to go on Sunday and fired up to beat Dallas."
We'll find out soon enough if rest of the available players share that same sentiment.