After 63 games of playing to win, the Phoenix Suns find themselves playing not to lose as they cling to playoff hopes that once seemed like destiny.

"Eighteen games is a lot of games," Goran Dragic told himself out loud after the Suns lost to Cleveland to drop two games out of the playoff hunt on Wednesday night.

That the team is even worried about a 2-game deficit with 18 to go is telling. It tells me that, for the first time all season, the collection of players with the second-least NBA experience in the league are doubting themselves.

One game later, the Suns have already cut that deficit in half by closing out a too-tight win against Boston aided by the Celtics worst shooting game of the season (and second-worst shooting game in the league this season). Eighteen games is indeed a lot of games.

Just like their GM last summer, the Phoenix Suns have found it easy all season to beat low expectations.

It's easier to be fearless when you've got nothing to fear. Loaded with expectations of no more than 15 or 20 wins out of 82 games, these Suns players with the second-least NBA experience in the league had no problem pinning their ears back and playing as hard as they could.

When you're not supposed to win, you don't need a conscience.

At some point, though, human nature takes over. Human nature dictates that we do have a conscience and that feelings of inadequacy are always present, if just below the surface.

After more than 60 games of playing fearless basketball, the Phoenix Suns found their playoff position being threatened by a surging Memphis team while Dallas and Golden State kept winning and winning. At the same time, injuries took a toll on the Suns as Goran Dragic missed 5 crucial quarters leading to two losses (Minnesota and Utah) that really needed to be wins to keep the good times flowing.

After that, a couple of too-close wins (Atlanta, New Orleans) and some tough losses to playoff teams forced the Suns collective to ask themselves dreaded question, "Are we really good enough?"

And like a bad song on the radio, it sticks in your head over and over until you hear a good one to replace it.

These Suns are waiting for that good song to play.

It consumed them in the Cleveland game. A 36-27 team looked more than a 15-48 team they were supposed to be at this point. They played "not to lose" rather than playing with abandon.

This phenomenon, playing "not to lose", is prevalent throughout sports. Football teams running the ball to protect a late lead when it was passing that got them the lead in the first place. Tennis players trying to just get the ball back over the net, rather than hitting the winners that got them there. Baseball teams swinging to make contact, rather than drive the ball.

The problem with these strategies is that you're ceding a bit of control to the opponent, rather than taking complete ownership of that win.

Even during the Boston game, you could see the bad song take over during the second half for the Suns. It's not a lack of effort or energy, it's the lack of inertia due to second-guessing. How many times did Gerald Green pass up a quick shot, only to dribble-tantrum himself into a worse one? How many times did Channing Frye clank an open three off the back of the rim? How many times did P.J. Tucker commit an over-aggressive foul?

It felt like a team that doesn't trust itself. These guys love each other, and they want to win for each other. There is no selfishness on the Suns.

But there is a bit of fear creeping in. Fear that you might let down your teammate. Fear that you might just turn into a pumpkin after all. Fear that not making the playoffs just proves those doubters right all along.

Goran Dragic calls it a "black hole". Black hole = fear. Even in the Boston win, P.J. Tucker says "we made it so hard on ourselves".

Coach Hornacek summed it up perfectly for Paul Coro in Boston yesterday.

"So now they lose a game and they're all disappointed and down and we all get frustrated. We have to realize that we put ourselves in the position where we are at least in the hunt for a playoff spot.

"Part of our success has been the confidence and the high level of them trying to go out there and prove things. Now that they proved it, that's that little edge that we're missing. We've got to get back to where we were not supposed to be a good team and we have to go out there and prove it every night."

It's time to be unafraid, as Ryan McDonough said last summer.

If you're afraid to fail, you're halfway there already.

Shake the fears, Suns. You still have something to prove. Prove to everyone who says you can't make the playoffs that you CAN make it. And WILL make it.

Prove that you are winners.

The Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics just ruined everyone’s happy hour. An early tip time meant Phoenix fans got off work just in time to watch the Celtics and Suns brick their way to the final...

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The Suns hit the first pit stop on a three game road trip dripping with playoff implications for a game against a Boston Celtics team with nothing to play for but pride. Boston gave the Suns everything they wanted and more, but an unexpected hero saved the day for Phoenix.

Recap

The Celtics sleeved jerseys are hideous. I own about two dozen Suns shirts and every single one seems more fashionable than the travesties of fashion sleevies the Suns have sported so I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise. Maybe they could just make them look more like regular t-shirts? Tasteless fashion aside, the Suns didn't get off to what I'd consider a strong start. Neither team was exactly lighting it up, but just under midway through the first quarter Boston led 13-8 and the Suns were looking a little disjointed.

Phoenix flipped a switch, though, and Bledsoe jumped a passing lane and scored on a breakaway layup to give the Suns a 14-13 lead just moments later. Dragic also had a couple wily darts to the rim as the run swelled to 14-0 before Rajon Rondo stanched the bleeding. Phoenix led 22-15 at this point and traded baskets the rest of the period.

First Quarter: Suns 29, Celtics 22

Things looked like they might be slipping away from the Celtics a little bit at the beginning of the second period. Watching Ish Smith (yes, rim protector Ish) send back a Jared Sullinger dunk attempt can exude that impression. On the other end the Suns offense seemed to be producing good shot attempts with a generous sprinkling of dunks and bunnies. The beleaguered defense was at least managing not to disrupt the Celtics from wallowing in their own offensive dysfunction.

Markieff Morris led a reserve group for Phoenix that flirted with blowing the game open by stretching their lead to 11 on several occasions, but Boston kept within striking distance. Then things unraveled for the Suns. Miles Plumlee air balled a free throw. Gerald Green appeared hesitant. Phoenix went 4:20 without a field goal. Suddenly the Celtics trailed by just four (39-35). The closing seconds that included a shot clock violation, an errant pass that went out of bounds untouched, and an inbounds pass that was stolen before the buzzer epitomized a first half of basketball that wouldn't necessarily capture the casual fan's interest. Phoenix had squandered an opportunity to gain separation and led by just two at the intermission.

Halftime: Suns 46, Celtics 44

The Suns were able to extend their lead to seven as Boston went scoreless for the first four minutes of the quarter. Kris Humphries was staying active for the Celtics, but some of that activity included negating a basket by way of offensive basket interference and hanging from the rim while trying to get a piggyback ride from Plumlee. Still, he reached double digits in rebounding early in the third as Boston struggled to keep pace. Remember the discussion of 50/50 ballls.  Humphries was grabbing them.

The game devolved back into something that only loosely resembled basketball. Both teams struggled to get anything cohesive on offense. The Celtics, in particular, looked like they might not have any legs with shot after shot coming up short. Lots of the misses for both teams weren't even close. Gerald Green lobbed up a shot that missed everything as his recent struggles continued. Once again the Celtics mucked and muddled their way along (or was it the Suns scuffling and stumbling along) and pulled within four to close the period on a rebound put back by Kelly Olynyk.

Third Quarter: Suns 64, Celtics 60

Going into the fourth it seemed safe to assume that the Suns could pull this out if they could just get to the good side of 80. That kind of game so far. Then the Celtics ran off nine straight points in the first 1:34 of the period. Overall ineptitude coupled with pillow soft defense helped incite the run as Boston appeared to be gaining confidence after managing to hang around the whole game. Jeff Hornacek called a much needed timeout that helped interrupt the Celtics unusual scoring paroxysm.

An unfortunate play kind of characterized the fight in the Celtics on this night. Plumlee grabbed a rebound and Olynyk raked him across the eye (literally clawing and scraping) sending Miles to the bench (Alex Len entered the game for him - spoiler alert). Not surprisingly, P.J. Tucker was just dripping with intensity on the Suns behalf. He looked every bit the role of a linebacker ripping a football away from a running back wrestling the ball away from a Celtic on one play.

The Celtics led 76-73 on a Chris Johnson layup after a wild melee that was more episode of The Three Stooges than NBA basketball, but the Suns responded down the stretch. Bledsoe tied the game at 78 on an and-one then the teams traded baskets to leave the score knotted at 80 with two minutes left.

With just one minute remaining the Suns had possession and the ball was in the hands of closer Eric Bledsoe. He launched a pull up iso jumper... that bounced off the rim. Bounced off the rim into the eager hands of rookie Alex Len, who engulfed the offensive rebound and scored over a helpless Boston defender. Len was fouled on the play and hit the free throw to stretch the lead to three.

Boston missed a three pointer to tie on the ensuing play and managed to grab the offensive rebound, but an intercepted pass led to a Markieff Morris fast break dunk to close out the game.

Final Score: Suns 87, Celtics 80

Comments of the Game:

Somewhere in hell is a TV that shows all of Plumlee's post ups

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So, I think we look better.

But it could just be we're playing the Celtics.

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I can't wait until horney trusts Alex Len

So we aren't out rebounded and out lengthened (whatever the word) every night.

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I haven't looked at the box score, but is Green 2-11?

He looks like 2-11 to me.

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Looking at Plumlee's eye is making mine water

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Just popped in to say:

Alex Len, bitches.

Player of the Game

Alex Len. He hit the decisive shot that pulled this game out of the fire.

The Good

Phoenix held the Celtics to 80 points on 30.9% shooting. Both are the lowest the Suns have held an opponent to this season. I know it shouldn't really count because it's against the Celtics... but officially it still does.

The Bad

The Suns were outhustled by the Celtics for the better part of the game. This is the second straight outing that a team which would seemingly have much less to play for was visibly more desperate than Phoenix. I'm just not getting how the Suns are having a hard time playing with intensity given the circumstances.

Gerald Green looks like his confidence is shaken. I don't think he's adapting well to his reduced role with Bledsoe back in the fold. It seems contradictory, but it was like he was forcing action and tentative all at the same time. Watching him pass up on shots that he normally pulls the string on is very out of character. I don't think I'm stepping out on a ledge to suggest that this is more than just coincidence. Green is 6-23 from the field in the last two games.

The Ugly

That was a damn near unwatchable game. About the only redeeming quality was the last few minutes. I wish I could have recorded it so I could have skipped through the commercials to get it over with quicker.

Bad basketball.

Final Thought(s)

The Suns desperately needed a win and they got a win even though their desperation seemed to be lacking.

It was serendipitous that Phoenix faced Boston in this game... because there aren't many other teams the Suns would have beat playing like they did tonight.

Also, Alex Len officially had his first Phoenix Sun moment.

After 64 games, it is obvious that the Phoenix Suns need to be perfectly healthy to be a winning basketball team. On Friday night against the Celtics, the Suns will be healthy for the first time since December 30.

Earlier today, azcentral.com's beat reporter Paul Coro reported what many of us expected to happen.

Screen_shot_2014-03-14_at_10

The Suns most productive starting lineup will be together for the opening tip for the first time since a December 30 romping of the Los Angeles Clippers. In that game, Eric Bledsoe's meniscus tore in his knee, sidelining him for 10 weeks.

At that point, the Suns starting five of Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, P.J. Tucker, Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee won 12 of 16 games in which no one got hurt. Twice, Dragic left a game in the 4th due to injury and the Suns lost.

Let's take a closer look how they got to 12-4 together.

Screen_shot_2014-03-14_at_10

*data courtesy of basketball-reference.com

This 5-man group has still played the second-most minutes on the team despite Bledsoe's injury. The only lineup that has played more minutes as a unit is the other primary starting lineup that swaps in Green for Bledsoe. That lineup is a net positive for the Suns, but not nearly to the degree of the Bledsoe/Dragic lineup.

Otherwise, the Suns are just a slightly above average team with a 24-24 record (3 of those losses saw Dragic leave the game in the 4th quarter with a lead, only to lose the game without him) and a net +2.2 points scored per 100 possessions.

Strength of schedule comps

The 12-4 lineup that's starting tonight's game, and hopefully the rest of the season, put up some quality wins.

The Suns beat the Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets, Toronto Raptors and Dallas Mavericks in that stretch, while losing to only the Nets, Grizzlies, Spurs and Warriors. That's a 6-5 record against current playoff teams, but the best news is that the Suns went 6-0 against losing teams*.

*The Nets were a losing team at the time, so you could call it 6-1 if you want

In the Suns' other 48 games not started and ended with Dragic/Bledsoe back court, they have gone 24-24 with an 11-9 record against teams over .500 and 13-15 against teams under .500**.

**data per nba.com, with the Bledsoe/Dragic record factored out of the totals

Going forward

Despite getting the boost that is Bledsoe back, the ironman of the team is hurting.

"Oh yes," Suns PG Goran Dragic replied when asked if this was the most banged up he's been at this point in the season. "Just bruises though. Nothing major."

Bad ankle. Bruised ribs.

"Maybe if Bledsoe hadn't gotten hurt," he said wistfully of the banging he's taken over the past couple of months.

The last time Bledsoe returned from injury (he missed 6 games for a shin bruise in November), the Suns lost to the struggling Grizzlies but then won 5 straight and 10 of 12 before Bledsoe went down again.

On Wednesday is his return, the Suns lost to the Cavaliers despite Bledsoe putting up 15 points, 9 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 steals in 33 minutes of action. But the Suns were missing P.J. Tucker due to suspension.

Hopefully, the Suns lost their obligatory first-game-back and will now go on a much-needed winning streak with their preferred starting lineup.

Time: 4:30 pm TV: FSAZ How long does it take to remove rust and work out kinks? For the Phoenix Suns, the hope is that it takes exactly one game. The Suns lost a winnable game to the Cleveland...

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