Phoenix Suns running out of time in playoff hunt
The arduous grind of an 82-game NBA season has nearly come to an end and with it, the playoff aspirations of 14 teams. Some have known for quite some time that this was not to be their season (Cleveland, Minnesota, Toronto) while others may have sealed their fates around the trade deadline (Utah). But for a bubble team like the Phoenix Suns, the last three weeks or so of the season will be gut-check time.
The Suns currently sit two games out of the eighth spot in the West and 10th in the West overall. At 35-33, the Suns would be the sixth seed if they played in the Eastern Conference, but that is not the case; Phoenix resides in the West, and out west, a team can’t meander around the .500 mark and get in the playoffs. The Suns will probably have to win at least 10 out of their last 14 games to overtake a current playoff team in the standings, and that may be asking too much, considering nine of their final 14 games are against teams currently in playoff position.
The Suns cannot blame their current predicament on injuries, as they have not had nearly the injury woes of, say, the Portland Trail Blazers, but have recently had two starters, Steve Nash and Channing Frye, miss games due to injury at the most inopportune time.
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Phoenix fell to 0-4 this season (and 9-21 since 2004-05) when Nash sits out after the star point guard missed two recent games due to pubic symphysis irritation that had him working out twice a day in an effort to correct the problem. His absence was noticeable, as reserve Aaron Brooks struggled to lead the team Nash does so masterfully.
Brooks has averaged just 7.8 points since arriving from Houston and has reached double figures scoring just twice in those 11 games. He seems to be struggling to adapt to the Suns’ offensive system and may be pressing too hard to be like Nash when he takes the floor. Brooks would not be the first guard to feel the pressure of being Nash’s backup; Leandro Barbosa, Marcus Banks, and most recently Goran Dragic all struggled to fill Nash’s shoes during their stints in the Valley.
Meanwhile, Frye missed five games with a dislocated right shoulder but returned earlier than expected on Mar. 18 to help his teammates push for a playoff spot. He, too, was needed, since Hakim Warrick could not provide the court-spacing shooting that Frye can. Warrick set a new career high with 32 points on Mar. 8 in his first game replacing Frye in the starting lineup but regressed from there, scoring 12, seven, six, and zero points in the following four games with a combined field-goal shooting of 7 of 26.
Not only did the Suns miss Frye’s shooting, they missed his rebounding and size too. He and Marcin Gortat, who has notched 15 double-doubles off the Suns’ bench to lead all NBA reserves in the category, play the majority of the frontcourt minutes together and had been doing a solid job of defending the paint. Frye snagged a career-high 15 rebounds before he dislocated his shoulder Mar. 6 and currently is averaging a career-best 6.6 rebounds per game.
During Frye’s absence, the slack was not picked up by Phoenix’s starting center, Robin Lopez, who has only recorded two double-figure rebounding games this season. His struggles are beginning to become so pronounced that fans are beginning to boo Lopez, and he could be just a few gaffes away from Luc Longley territory, as Longley would receive some boos from the home crowd during player introductions during his brief time playing for Phoenix.
Vince Carter has been just as disappointing. He is averaging a career-worst 14.2 points per game on just 42.6 percent shooting for Phoenix. He rarely attacks the basket or draws fouls and seems more than content to jack up the open 3-pointers that Nash sets up for him. When he is hot, he can still put up Carter-like numbers, but those instances are few and far between; he has scored 11 or fewer points in 14 of his last 21 games.
Grant Hill has still been Phoenix’s best defender, guarding the opposing team’s best player on nearly every occasion, but the wear and tear of the season’s workload seems to be taking a toll on the 38-year-old Hill’s offensive game, as his scoring has dropped to 13.4 points after hovering near 15 points per game earlier in the season. Luckily his defense in not slipping, considering he recently held Golden State’s Monta Ellis, who came into the game ranked No. 6 in the NBA in scoring at 24.8 points per game, to eight points on 3-of-11 shooting.
For a team fighting for its playoff life while struggling through injuries and unproductive players, any good news is welcome. Some came on Mar. 14 when seldom-used reserves Zabian Dowdell and Josh Childress helped spark a furious fourth-quarter comeback against Houston. The rookie Dowdell had a career-high 11 points and Childress added 15 as the rally came up just short in a 95-93 defeat.
And that has seemingly been the refrain for the Suns all season — a lot of heart but just short.
By: Eric Lorenz
Pro Basketball Fans Staff Writer
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