Every NBA team has to deal with adversity and injury, each facing those issues at different points in the season. This is the Phoenix Suns time to face it, and how they recover will define this season more than anything that's happened in the first 64 games.
After 64 games, the upstart, surprising Phoenix Suns have finally delivered what the preseason and mid season prognosticators predicted.
Losers of seven of their last 10 games, the Suns have dropped from 7th in the playoff picture to 9th and into lottery land. They sit two games back of surging Memphis and Dallas with 18 games left in the season.
Does the team fail to realize winning games in March is a lot tougher than winning games in December or January, with every player except Goran Dragic playing a bigger role in a playoff push than they have ever played before?
"It's possible," coach Hornacek said. "Teams are stepping it up. Our guys, you'd think we'd realize it."
The Suns returned home from a tough 4-game stretch against West playoff teams, glad to have Eric Bledsoe back and possibly thinking they had an easy game in the bag. But it was Cleveland, losers of 4 straight themselves, who came out on fire to take an early lead.
"They (Cleveland) looked like the team that was trying to get into the playoffs," Hornacek said. "And we looked like the team that just wanted to play a basketball game."
Once again, the Suns dug themselves a big hole in the first quarter, finding themselves down 37-24 after one stanza. This repeats a pattern of large, early deficits that requires so much energy to get back to even that often the team lacks the wherewithal to finish the deal before running out of steam.
"We have to look at changes in the first group," Hornacek said. "At this point, we can't worry about making changes in the lineup."
Due to injury and suspension, the Suns have played five different starting lineups in the past 8 games - an 8-game stretch in which their defense has been the worst in the league. And it all starts with that first quarter level of effort.
"Obviously, not having our emotional and physical leader in P.J. hurt us," Hornacek said. "With all those loose balls, maybe somebody else gets them. It was right from the first play of the game… the ball bounces loose and we took a little stab at it, but that was about it. They got to them quicker."
Tucker will return in the next game, setting the stage for the Suns to play their best possible starting lineup for the last 18 games of the season. Bledsoe and Dragic at the guard spots with Tucker, Frye and Plumlee down low have started only 16 of 64 games this season but have won 12 of those 16 games. That group is a good mix of defense (Tucker, Plumlee, Bledsoe) and offense (Frye's outside shooting, Dragic, Bledsoe) that generally took a first-quarter lead when they played as a unit.
Against Cleveland, Eric Bledsoe scored 15 points and had a game-high nine assists in 32 minutes off the bench as he returned to action for the first time since December 30, 2013. He was quick and decisive.
"We have to play like we have been playing from the jump – proving people wrong," Bledsoe said after the game. "Like I said, we are not coming out like we use to. It is going to change. It is going to have to. We have a tough stretch of games going on the road, so we just have to take care of business."
While Bledsoe spoke to the media, Goran Dragic slumped in front of his locker with a big ice pack on his rib cage and a towel over his head for five full minutes. When the media shifted over to Markieff Morris, Bledsoe walked over to his partner in crime for a little chat. It looked like Bledsoe was checking up on Dragic to make sure he was okay.
Markieff Morris recorded his eight double-double of the season and second in two games against Cleveland this season with 18 points (8-13 FG) and 10 rebounds. Markieff’s eight double-doubles as a reserve this season are most in the NBA.
"You see Memphis and Dallas winning those games and we cannot worry about that," Morris said, still talking the talk. "We have to worry about ourselves. It is our second or third loss in a row… we just have to play one game at a time."
Keef has not started a game this season after being a starter his first two years in Phoenix. That's fine as long as the team is winning, but you have to wonder if Keef will start grousing as the Suns starters continue to fall behind before he steps on the court and the season winds down to a halt.
Goran Dragic posted his 30th game with 20+ points of the season and his 14th in the last 20 games with exactly 20 points against the Cavs. Over his last 20 games, Dragic is averaging 23.1 points (.541 FG%, .500 3FG%) and 6.3 assists.
"I don't know what's going on with us right now," Dragic said when the media gathered around him. "We have to get those things together, because we are still in the playoff hunt. It's not over. We still have 18 games left. Those first quarters, they kill us. It takes a lot of energy to get back and then you're tired and trying to hit shots."
Dragic has put so much of himself into this season to keep the team afloat that he looks more and more exhausted after every game. But he wouldn't have it any other way.
"Physically, I am on the edge. Everything hurts," he said. "Bruising but nothing else, nothing big. It hurts more when you lose."
Dragic is more concerned with the lack of energy from a team fighting for the right to play into late April.
"I don't know what is going on with us, if I'm honest. We are just in a black hole," he said. "We should want it more than them because we want to play in the playoffs. I don't know, are we tired? The 50/50 balls, they're not ours anymore.
"After every game, we should not stand on our legs. We should fall down. And then if we lose like that, we can say okay I gave everything I got."
Of all the players on the team, only Goran Dragic has had a comparable role in a playoff push when he was with Houston in the spring of 2011 and 2012. Houston came up just short of the playoffs in both seasons, but Dragic was sensational down the stretch.
This season, the Suns are counting on players who have either never been in a playoff push or have held a much smaller role when the going got tough.
"You would think they would know the situation with the games we are in," Hornacek, a rookie coach himself, said. "The standings and that kind of stuff. We do not go over it, but I think everyone understands that at this point everyone has to step it up. You are trying to win games. We have to win games we are suppose too. That is the disappointing part."
Dragic hopes the guys realize that no one is going to hand them a playoff spot. They have to earn it behind their own tough-minded, physical play.
"You have to earn that by yourself," Dragic said. "You have to take that spot. Eric played in playoffs, me, Channing. I think that's it, if I'm not mistaken. It's different basketball. It's not like regular season. Even now, each game should be like that for us."
This is a dark time for the team, but it's important to note that they all really care about the game of basketball and about each other. Maybe the team needed a slap in the face to get back into playing like the underdog and proving people wrong. Going on the road with no one to support them but themselves could be just the right tonic.
"You know, when you're winning everything is okay," Dragic said. "18 games is a lot. I'm glad we have 18 games left, we can turn this around."
Have their ideal starting lineup will help to kick off games right. While P.J. Tucker hasn't played in an NBA playoff game, he has been MVP and won two league titles oversees. Tucker is the NBA's leading rebounder among all players under 6'6" this season. A Phoenix Suns player has not accomplished this feat since Charles Barkley. Bledsoe is a defensive and offensive dynamo. Plumlee looks spry again, with 23 points and 19 rebounds in his last two games.
The Suns have a chance to win a lot more games this season. They need to take that playoff spot with their own stretch of strong play, rather than hope another team hands it to them.
"It's not a bad season for us," Dragic said. "But still we want something more. We believe we can play in playoffs."
The Phoenix Suns have completely lost their mojo. Since losing a hotly contested game at home to Houston two weeks ago, the Suns have been in a funk they might not survive after losing to Cleveland at home as Memphis and Dallas continue to win.
After being down 24 at halftime in Cleveland in January only to come back to win by 9, the Suns apparently decided they wanted to try that formula again. This time, the Suns slogged and sloughed their way to a 13-point halftime deficit before waking up to the level of play necessary to win an NBA game.
But this time it wasn't meant to be. The Cavaliers made shots, and the Suns just couldn't make theirs when they mattered, as the Cavaliers won 110-101. The game was excruciating to watch.
The Phoenix Suns now sit 2 full games out of playoff position, behind both Dallas and Memphis who continue to win.
The Suns had several chances to take the lead late in the third, but just could not convert. The closest the Suns got was 75-73. But Dragic stepped out of bounds after missing two threes on one possession and Cleveland scored at the other end.
When the Cavs realized they had survived the Suns storm, it was like a gift. For a team suffering a 4-game losing streak, they didn't pass up the chance for a win when it was handed to them. The Cavaliers won this game walking away. Or, walking to the free throw line. The last minute of play was interminable.
The Cavs blasted the Suns in every area of the game - shooting, rebounding, assisting, everything.
The Suns bright side notes:
But the Suns just watched more air go out of their playoff balloon.
THIS right here is the lowest point of the season. Let's see what happens with this team here on out.
"They looked like the team that was trying to get into the playoffs," Hornacek said. "We looked like the team that just wanted to play a baskeball game."
The good news is that the Suns will be #fullsquad in the next game for the first time since they were 19-11.
The Suns started out the game playing in quicksand, everything a step short. The Cavaliers made two wide open corner threes (something the Suns denied best in NBA until a couple weeks ago) and drew fouls while the Suns stumbled and bumbled to a 10-2 deficit.
Only Goran Dragic's three stopped the bleeding for the moment, but then the blood letting picked up again. While Eric Bledsoe returned to action looking like his old self, the rest of the Suns unfortunately looked a lot like their new selves.
Spencer Hawes went off for 17 points in the first 9 minutes of play on 3-3 three-point shooting and 5-7 overall from the field. One of his only misses was so bad it didn't hit the rim, but bounced right to his own guy. Hawes then climbed over the backs of the Suns for the putback on the next miss. I guess that's legal.
At the end of one, the Cavaliers led 37-24. They led the Suns 16-0 on second-chance points. They led 16-5 in rebounds.
Un. Be. Lievable.
When Hawes went out and the second units came in, the Suns cut the Cavs lead to just 8. By just, I mean that the Suns Suns were still bumbling and stumbling along but the Cavs cooled off.
Suns pulled to within 43-35 when Kyrie Irving and the starters returned for the Cavs, feeling like they could win the NBA championship. The Cavs pulled back to a 53-39 lead just by playing smart basketball and letting the Suns watch the game from the great angle of the floor.
By halftime, the Suns threw away chance after chance to pull closer and the Cavs went into halftime with a 60-47 lead on the Suns.
Here's the Suns defense in a nutshell:
The good news is that Eric Bledsoe brought back everything but his shooting touch (and maybe his defense) by putting up 6 assists in only 13 first half minutes of play, along with 3 points and 1 rebound. He looked good on the court, like his old self.
Goran Dragic had only 5 points and 3 rebounds, deferring a lot to Bledsoe in the first half. But offense, aside from missing open shots, wasn't really the problem in the first half. It was the lack of any defense on the other end.
The Suns opened the second half with Bledsoe in there alongside Dragic, but the initial results were the same. Luol Deng got an open J to push the Cavs lead to 15, but then the Suns got a couple turnovers and made some threes and went on a run. Would have been even better if they'd hit their free throws.
The Cavs didn't just lay down this time, staying competitive by making shots (where have we heard that before?). Gerald Green came in to miss a several open jumpers and the Suns struggled to tie up the game despite the Cavaliers missing shots at a high rate.
The Suns went into the 4th quarter down 5 by missing free throws and open shots while giving up a late 3 to Dion Waiters to get the lead back to 5 as time expired in the third.
Waiters hit another to open the third and then missed one so badly it bounced ON THE COURT and Tyler Zeller corralled it for an easy Irving jumper. That's the Suns night.
Even two consecutive Suns dunks couldn't raise their spirits, considering they only brought the Suns back to an 8-point deficit.
News Flash: beating ANY NBA TEAM requires consistent effort and energy. The Suns did not have that tonight.