The Cinderella season is over. After pulling into 7th in the West just five days ago, the Suns lost three straight huge games and find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoffs. For the third game in a row, a Suns opponent solidified their playoff spot at the expense of the Suns.

The Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies played a playoff game tonight, and it went just like the last two times the Suns played playoff do-or-die games.

The Suns played their hardest and stayed right there into the final minute before giving up big buckets to the opposing team and failing to score on their end when they needed it the most.

The Suns took a 91-90 lead before Mike Conley made a three-pointer and then committed a turnover on their own end that resulted in Zach Randolph getting a breakaway layup to put the Grizzlies up four. Just. like. that.

The Suns couldn't close the deal while the playoff-veteran team could.

Game, Grizzlies.

Zach Randolph (32, 9) and Mike Conley (13, 7 with a big game-deciding three) led the Grizzlies when they needed it most, while the Suns were led by their own big three of Goran Dragic (14, 4, 5, 4), Eric Bledsoe (13, 5, 3, 2) and Markieff Morris (21).

But the Suns were outrebounded 38-29, outshot 52% to 49%, and on three pointers 6-15 vs. 5-25. The Suns just couldn't close the deal.

In four losses to the Grizzlies this year, the Suns have scored just 91 in three of them.

After the game, Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph was quite effusive on his respect for the Suns.

"It was real intense. The game went back and forth," he said of the 15 lead changes in the fourth quarter alone. "Those two plays at the end were big for us."

Then he went on, when he didn't need to, about the Suns whose season-long fight for the playoffs just ended despite being in line for 48 wins: "Coach Hornacek did a great job and those young guys over there, you've got to take your hat off to them. They had a great season. Bledsoe, he's a stud. Dragic and all those other guys are great young players. They're a great team with a lot of talent and up and coming."

Thanks, Zach.

Grizzlies C Marc Gasol talked about how his Grizzlies team went through a lot of losing when they were younger, and now they're the veteran team that can close out those games, referring to the Suns inability to get to the playoffs.

Point guard Eric Bledsoe made some pointed comments about his role on the team.

"Just got to take all the positives, the positives of this whole season," Bledsoe said. "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."

Boo yah!!

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It appeared before the game that the Phoenix Suns would come out flat after losing heartbreakers against the Spurs and Mavericks over the weekend, and facing long odds to make the playoffs.

AZ Republic reporter Paul Coro said the Suns were shellshocked after the Dallas loss, and Coach Hornacek admitted the Suns were still depressed and quiet today.

Add in a Memphis Grizzlies team the Suns really can't match up well against, and you've got a recipe for a bad home loss to end the slate at US Airways Center.

The first quarter proved all those dire prognostications to be true.

The Suns missed 7 of 8 three pointers and 12 of 18 shots overall, and we down to the Grizzlies 24-14 after one period. Their play was so bad that "only" a 10-point deficit was closer than it appeared.

But even in the second quarter, the Suns had no life. They had effort, but no life. A lot of bad decisions, isolation ball, missed jumpers and bad rotations.

And oh the rebounding problems. Tony Allen once slipped in between three Suns rebounders on the back side of the rim all waiting for the missed shot, all within three feet of the rim, and stole the rebound away. Three Suns were there. Three.

The Suns ended the half on a 9-0 run though, to pull within 46-42 at halftime, and then started the second half on an 11-4 run to take a 3-point lead at 53-50.

The Suns played so bad in the first 20 minutes of the game that the Grizzlies had a hard time re-engaging.

Luckily for the Grizzlies, the Suns throttled themselves with six straight bad offensive possessions in the half court and allowed the Grizzlies to retake the lead. Suns took all jumpers, all contested at least partly, all misses.

The Grizzlies took a 59-55 lead before the Suns decided to play ball again, this time driving hard to the hoop by Markieff Morris on two possessions sandwiching a Bledsoe drive as the Suns tied it at 61-61.

The Suns were back. It took a half a basketball game, but the Suns were re-engaged in a big way.

And so were the Grizzlies. The game see-sawed back and forth for a long time as both teams played their hearts out.

Every possession came close to drawing blood as both teams wanted the win desperately.

No team had more than a 3-point lead in the last quarter plus as they fought and clawed for every point like there was no tomorrow.

And guess what? For both teams, that's exactly what it is. The Grizz HAVE to win this game. The Suns HAVE to win this game.

This. Is. It.

With only two games remaining Phoenix's tenuous chances of making the playoffs still hang in the balance. Are Jeff Hornacek's chances of winning NBA Coach of the Year dependent on that outcome?

This article could just as easily be about how the Suns falling just short of the playoffs might affect their players chances of winning Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year awards or, in Goran Dragic's case, an All-NBA selection (or whether he finishes second or third team). I actually pondered over agglutinating all of these topics into one article, but in the end my blatant laziness hectic schedule swayed my decision to focus on the coaching award. If my workload was just a little lighter perhaps I'd be writing a more involved piece that included those other subjects.

Cause and effect.

I think it would be apocryphal logic to assume that the Suns making or missing the playoffs won't influence the sportswriters who vote on the award. With several other deserving candidates populating the landscape it may just be a few votes that swing the outcome. Perhaps faltering down the stretch sullies the team's feel good story in the eyes of some and the team morphs into "the little engine that couldn't."

While it seems like the national media finally caught on that something special was sprouting out of the sweltering Sonoran Desert, every time I hear someone say Horna "check" on a show or game that is nationally televised it makes me skeptical that person is doing a critical examination of Jeff's qualifications...

Here are a few other historical trends associated with the NBA Coach of the Year award that I'd almost guarantee the Horna "check" guys aren't aware of... This is a situation where the patterns don't dictate the selection process, but the end result establishes some pretty salient patterns.

The worst record by a team whose coach won the award was 33-48 when Johnny Kerr led the Chicago Bulls to the playoffs in their first season (1966-67). That record is bad enough that it wouldn't even make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference this season. It was the only time a team finished with a losing record.

The only team not to make the playoffs was the 1999-00 Orlando Magic, who finished 41-41 when Doc Rivers won the award. That team was widely considered to be the worst team in the league at the beginning of the season, but managed to stultify the pundits despite falling just short of the postseason. The Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks both finished one game ahead of the Magic (42-40) and took the seventh and eighth seeds.

In the last 16 years only Gregg Popovich (2002-03 and 2011-12) and Hubie Brown (1977-78 and 2003-04) were repeat winners. It seems like the main criteria for the award is exceeding expectations/season to season improvement, so coaches like Phil Jackson, who had routinely outstanding teams, weren't able to stockpile Red Auerbach trophies. On another note, how impressive is it that Brown sandwiched two decades and change in between his awards?

Since 1988-89 (25 seasons) only three teams whose coaches have won finished below 50 wins (or a .610 winning %) - the 1994-95 Lakers (48-34), 1999-00 Magic (41-41) and 2006-07 Raptors (47-35).

Toronto Raptors - Dwane Casey

The Raptors are already +13 from last season's win total with 47. One more victory would set a franchise record for most wins in a season. Toronto has clinched the Atlantic Division for the first time since the 2006-07 season. That season Sam Mitchell was named coach of the year as Toronto finished 47-35. Also working in Casey's favor is the perception that winning in Toronto comes with a greater degree of difficulty than many other markets.

Chicago Bulls - Tom Thibodeau

The Bulls were 14-18 when they traded Luol Deng in a move that most people felt was akin to throwing in the towel. The main question then was not whether they could make the playoffs, but if there would be a fire sale that resulted in even more attrition for a team besieged by injuries to its star player. Since then the Bulls are 33-15 and site tied for the third seed with the Raptors. For what it's worth, Thibodeau won the award and finished second in the 2012 voting.

Charlotte Bobcats - Steve Clifford

The Bobcats will finish with a winning record and make the playoffs for only the second time in their 10 year history. Charlotte (41-39) is already +20 wins from last season's abysmal 21-61 record where they finished just one game above the Orlando Magic for worst record in the league. So basically worst in the league to making the playoffs. Clifford is also a rookie who has defied odds by succeeding in what may have been the worst coaching job in the league over the last decade.

Portland Trail Blazers - Terry Stotts

Portland is the third team in the NBA that has improved by at least 20 wins from last season. I'm guessing that there usually aren't that many teams with such vast improvement on a regular basis, but haven't fact checked the veracity of this assertion. The Blazers have the most victories of the teams on this list (53), but were also considered to be a team on the rise (and one that probably underperformed last season) heading into this campaign.

Dallas Mavericks - Rick Carlisle

Carlisle is another former winner of the award and piloted the Mavs back into the playoffs after they missed last season to snap a string of 12 consecutive appearances. He'd be lower on my pecking order, but he did get Dirk Nowitzki back in the postseason after I envisioned them following in the footsteps of the Nash Suns...

San Antonio Spurs - Gregg Popovich

You have to admire those rare instances where a person can make excellence seem so routine. If I had a vote I'd have to think long and hard about him and I'm a Suns fan...

Phoenix Suns - Jeff Hornacek

At +22 wins the Suns are already ensured of having the biggest increase from last season. Phoenix also boasts the advantage of having been viewed as an abhorrent team coming into the season. In terms of results compared to expectations the Suns top this list, competing for a playoff spot in the stacked Western Conference. The marked improvement in many players on the roster also lends credence to his ability to coach up the talent on the roster. The negative, the basis of this analysis and whatnot, is that the Suns are the only team on this list that might not make the playoffs.

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Hornacek's coach of the year candidacy mirrors the trajectory of the team. He has wildly exceeded expectations and even his own optimistic predictions (e.g. 103 points per game). Maybe he can still follow the path of Doc Rivers and be the second coach to win the honor despite failing to reach the playoffs. After all, the situation is quite similar.

But I'm not sure I like the odds of him backing into the award. So just like the Suns season may not have a story book ending, maybe Hornacek's first year won't be recognized in the way it might have been. That would add another blemish of disappointment to what has been a great season.

Things can be great and end badly. I've seen a lot of great movies with completely disappointing endings. Right now the Suns season is kind of looking like one of those, but maybe instead this one still has a surprise plot twist left.

Never trust the Lakers.

Back in the mid 1980s there was only one thing I loved more than van surfing - and that was basketball.  When I used to play my old coach (Coach Finstock if you're familiar) had just four rules for ensuring your life was cream cheese:  (1) never get less than twelve hours sleep; (2) never play cards with a guy who has the same first name as a city; (3) never get involved with a woman with a tattoo of a dagger on her body; and (4) never, ever trust the Lakers to do anything good for you.

It was that 4th rule that was the most important.

To keep things as simple for all of us as is possible here is the way the Phoenix Suns can still make the playoffs:

  • Beat Memphis tonight.
  • Beat Sacramento Wednesday
  • Dallas beats Memphis on Wednesday. 

Now most of us have become resigned to the fact that Dallas will have the 7 seed sewn up in that scenario and thus no motivation to play their starters signifigant minutes - if at all.  Yet in a season of wrinkles there's one more wrinkle left to....unwrinkle?

Should the Golden State Warriors lose their home game tonight against Minnesota - a team I'm assured is amazing based on their point differential -  then Dallas will go into their road game with Memphis on Wednesday with a shot at jumping the Full Squad for the 6 seed and the right to avoid Oklahoma City.  Dallas would still need to hope Golden State loses their game to Denver on the same night but the Mavs game starts 2 and a half hours before the Denver/GSW contest.

So you know - there's sort of a chance.

Sunday April 13th Key Western Conference Results:

Memphis Grizzlies 102 Los Angeles Lakers 90 (Recap) - Considering I had little to no hope for the Lakers pulling this game out my viewing of this contest was passive at best.  For that reason I did not permit myself to enjoy a glimmer of excitement when the Lakers held a 9 point lead in the middle of the 2nd quarter, nor did I jump for joy when they briefly held a 1 point lead in the 3rd.  During a 34-17 dominating swing in the third quarter the Grizzlies proved why I should have no trust in the Lakers and won the game going away.

Mike Conley had 24 to lead Memphis while Marc Gasol added 18 points and 15 rebounds.  Wesley Johnson played 40 minutes last night - if that alone isn't enough to get a "what did you expect" then I'm not sure what is.

On the mild plus side, Conley and Gasol played 35 and 36 minutes respectively which is more than the "come out of the tip off, score a bunch, and laugh our way to the bench" that I expected.

Current Western Conference Standings:

TEAM W L PCT GB L10 STREAK
1.San Antonio
62 18 .775 - 8-2 WON 2
2. Oklahoma City
58 22 .725 4
6-4 LOST 1
3. LA Clippers
56 24 .700 6 7-3 WON 1
4. Houston 53 27 .663 9 5-5 WON 1
5. Portland
53 28 .654 9 8-2 WON 4
6. Golden State
49 31 .613 13 5-5 LOST 1
7. Dallas
49 32 .605 13.5 7-3 WON 1
8. Memphis
48 32 .600 14
6-4 WON 3
- SUNS
47 33 .588 15 6-4 LOST 2

Monday April 14th Western Conference Games of Significance:

Grizzlies @ Suns - Last home game of the season.  Win and the Suns stay alive for at least two more days - lose and it's completely over.  Memphis has already beaten the Suns three times this season, all three without their best player.  If there was ever a time to turn the tide, this would be it.  Considering Goran Dragic is still playing on a bum ankle and the quotes from Saturday made it seem like all the team's eggs were in that basket - I've reverted to my standard lack of optimism for this one.

Timberwolves @ Warriors -  This one tips a half hour after the Suns game.  As stated above this would matter in that should Minnesota pull off the upset, Dallas could potentially be playing for the 6 seed on Wednesday.

Time: 7 p.m. MST TV: FSA A chance. Six months ago talks of a playoff berth would have seemed foolish, far-fetched and nothing short of whimsical. But since the night of Oct. 30, the Phoenix Suns...

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It may feel like the Suns are just playing out the string after tough losses in Texas over the weekend, but the Suns still have a chance to make the dance if they can beat the Grizzlies.

Hurtling toward the end of an unexpectedly thrilling season, the Phoenix Suns appear to have stumbled in the stretch run just enough to finish 9th in a race with only 8 winners.

Goran Dragic re-twisted his ankle just before the toughest games of the year, and the Suns just didn't have the horses to beat San Antonio or Dallas on the road over the weekend.

For the Suns to make the playoffs, they need the Mac truck called the Memphis Grizzlies to match their stumble. The Suns can cause a bit of a bobble tonight, but they need the Grizzlies to complete the fall on their own on Wednesday night against the Mavericks team with little to nothing to play for.

If the Suns beat the Grizzlies tonight, the 49-win Mavericks will finish no lower than 7th in the West. There is a small chance the Golden State Warriors (also with 49 wins) will give the Mavs a chance at 6th with a win over Memphis, but the Warriors just need one more win over either Denver or Minnesota to secure 6th regardless what Dallas does.

But at least we're saying there's a chance.

The Opponent - The Grizzlies

The Grizzlies did what they needed to do to control their own destiny in the playoff race. They beat the teams they were supposed to beat and pulled off an upset of the Miami Heat in the past week.

The Grizzlies current starting lineup of Mike Conley, Courtney Lee, Tayshawn Prince, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol is 25-8 together - even better than the Suns' best lineup - and have looked like a playoff team for a while now. The Grizzlies' problem was health - they were pretty bad (except against the Suns) when Marc Gasol missed a few weeks with a knee injury.

Grizzlies are the league's slowest team, ranking 30th in pace as they walk the ball up the court and pound it inside to the post for Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to eat up the opponent. Unfortunately, this style is kryptonite to the Suns and we might see tonight that the Suns just don't have an answer. The Grizz might score 60-70 points in the paint, and the Suns only chance might be to get on fire from the three-point line.

The Suns

The Suns have won 11 of their last 14 starts with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe sharing the backcourt, and Channing Frye, Miles Plumlee and P.J. Tucker along the front line. Overall, the Suns are 23-10 with this lineup despite losing three of those games because Dragic was either severely hobbled or left the game due to injury.

This has been such a tough year physically for Goran Dragic even while he's been playing at an All-Star level. No guard in the last 20 years has matched Goran's 20+ points per game on 50+% FG shooting and 40+% three-point shooting. Dragic has suffered a half-dozen ankle injuries, the latest of which may just have put the nail in the coffin of the Suns playoff hopes.

Dragic missed Friday night's loss and hobbled through Saturday's loss, producing only 13 points in 40 minutes on Saturday against a porous Dallas D.

Next to him, young guard Eric Bledsoe has taken over and tried to will the Suns to a win with his elite athleticism and effort but ultimately hurt the team with his inexperience. In the two games, Bledsoe averaged 29.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 5 steals and a whopping 7 turnovers.

On Friday, he had a drive to the hoop that could have pulled the Suns within 2 in the final minute but he chose to pass out to an open Channing Frye for a three-pointer.

On Saturday, he had a drive to the hoop that could have tied the game with 10 seconds left and this time he took the shot but his layup was blocked on a great defensive play by Brandan Wright, who rotated on help defense.

Add in costly turnovers - 14 over the two games - and Bledsoe just didn't have the experience it takes to close out a tough game against playoff-caliber competition. But this year was always supposed to be a learning experience, since Bledsoe had never been "the man" in late game situations before. Expect his decision-making to improve over the years.

The Dallas game on Saturday night was a microcosm of Bledsoe's great potential and costly inexperience. With his team down eight points in the final two minutes, Bledsoe led a 7-0 run with 5 points, 1 steal and another forced turnover to give the Suns several chances to tie or take the lead in the final minute.

The sequence:

  • Led a 7-0 charge to pull the Suns within 1 point with less than a minute left (99-98)
  • But missed the second free throw that could have tied the game, leaving the Suns 1 point behind
  • Got a steal on the next play but immediately passed to Gerald Green for a quick shot to take the lead instead of holding for a better one (Green missed)
  • Drove for a game-tying layup with 10 seconds left, but didn't see the help defender (Wright) who blocked the layup

All plays borne of aggression and effort, but ultimately showed his inexperience. If Green had hit that runner to take the lead, Bledsoe would be hailed a hero. There would have been 25 seconds on the clock, leaving the Suns with a final-shot opportunity if Dallas had scored on the ensuing possession.

But Green missed, and then Bledsoe got blocked a few seconds later and the Suns came up short. Unfortunately, Goran Dragic was a shadow of himself or he could have helped close out that game.

Now, the Suns have to hope for help to make the playoffs, and they have to figure out how to beat a team they cannot seem to beat - the Memphis Grizzlies.

The Stats

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The Lineups

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You can bet Dragic will play in this game, no matter what shape his ankle is in. He's too much of a competitor.

Key Match-Up

There's no other place to watch than the painted area on both ends of the court. The Grizzlies will try to pound it inside with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph until the Suns yell uncle. The Suns are 0-3 against the Grizzlies, even though the Grizz haven't played their full lineup in any of those games. It's the style that kills the Suns. If not Randolph and Gasol, it's Davis and Koufos killing them.

The Suns will have to find their inner sand bucket and make the scoring somewhat even down low if they are to have a chance to finish the home schedule with a win.

The Prediction

The Suns will be playing for pride and a flicker of playoff hope, but the Grizzlies are the worst kind of team to face right now.

Maybe they should call Alvin or Lindsey for a game plan. Somehow, the Suns won the season series against an even stronger Memphis team a year ago despite suffering their own worst season in 40 years.

I'd love to say the Suns will win this one, but I don't have a good feeling about it.

Yet after watching the Spurs clinch the #1 spot on Friday, and watching Dallas clinch a playoff berth on Saturday, the last thing the Suns want is to allow the Grizzlies to become the third consecutive team to clinch their playoff position by beating the Suns.

Fight to end, Suns!

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