Elite West teams should fear the Suns, but they’ll probably be spared. Phoenix, with its young, energetic band of 3-point slingers, looks the part of a prototypical giant killer. Unfortunately for the Suns, their fans and the League Pass addicts who emotionally invested in the rise of Goran Dragic, they essentially dropped off the playoff bubble with two games to go.
It’s a bleaker scenario than “one game back from No. 8” would indicate because the Suns lose tiebreakers to the Memphis Grizzlies (who haven’t clinched a playoff spot) and the Mavericks (who have). On Monday, Phoenix must beat Memphis. That’s not enough on its own, though. The Suns then need the Grizzlies on Wednesday night to lose to a Mavericks squad that will have little incentive to try. Oh, and then there’s Phoenix’s season finale in Sacramento. It would be so painful to see your playoff hopes die on a contested jumper from Travis Outlaw.
All of this is really a shame because the Suns are a rare lottery team that could actually matter if thrown into the postseason. High-variance squads like the Suns are the bane of favorites. Three-pointers are ammunition for David’s sling and give a team like the Suns a chance at beating a superior opponent over the course of a series.
But it goes a bit deeper than “the Suns shoot 3s." This is a quirky team, one that forces more traditional teams to contort uncomfortably. Not many teams play a 3-point shooter at center like Channing Frye, forcing opposing slow-footed 5s to plod far beyond the friendly confines of the paint. Not many teams can go five-out, stretching defenses apart by playing five 3-point shooters at once. Not many teams can roll out two slashing, hyperathletic, elite combo guards.
Dragic traverses a full NBA court in the time it takes normal people to sprint across their living rooms, all the while remaining in complete control of his finishes around the rim. He’s emerged as a most improved player candidate while cracking MVP ballot conversation.
And Eric Bledsoe makes “The Dragon” look slow. It’s difficult to quantify Bledsoe’s physical gifts, but this moment cuts to the heart of the matter: He’s a 6-foot, 0.25-inch guard who once emphatically swatted Anthony Davis’ layup. Phoenix has been without his services for half the season, meaning that it's probably a good deal better than record would indicate.
When locked in, Bledsoe is a destructive defensive force, quite possibly best among point guards. Many Clippers fans would argue that Vinny Del Negro’s reluctance to use his young dynamo cost Los Angeles a first-round playoff series last year. It’s doubtful that Jeff Hornacek makes the same error now that he’s seen how productive Bledsoe can be with greater responsibility.
Bledsoe and Dragic aren’t the only Suns showing out this season. Gerald Green went from washout to occasional Tracy McGrady imitation. The Morris twins have found their niches as versatile, 3-point shooting power forwards. Frye is back to causing defenses fits in the pick-and-pop. Miles Plumlee has found the perfect platform for his athletic, high-energy game.
It's a funny circumstance we've arrived at with this vast East-West divide, when teams that have sat on the playoff bubble all season happen to boast MVP-ballot guys like Dragic and Dirk Nowitzki.
The greater absurdity is that we’ll likely be deprived of the Suns in the playoffs in favor of a Hawks team that traditionally makes less playoff noise than its brilliant organist. Although the Western playoff race has been a thrilling, protracted battle for survival, it’s underpinned by the sadness of knowing somebody has to go home far too early.
The NBA’s quirkiest matchup problem could potentially upset the Spurs and their slower bigs. They could have posed a threat to the Thunder’s distracted perimeter defense, but that scenario is out the window now. Unfortunately for fans of competitive basketball, the Suns are probably going fishing; as of Monday, their playoff odds stand at just 15.5 percent. (The Grizzlies make up the remaining 84.5.) In these last few games, they need skill, determination, and above all, luck. If only the NBA felt the need to showcase its best teams come postseason.