Somehow, some way the NBA had the foresight to schedule a play-in tournament to win the last two playoff berths in the Western Conference. It starts tonight as the Phoenix Suns play the Dallas Mavericks in the Big D.
When was the last time three teams were basically tied for two playoff spots going into the final few games? Even more rare, when have those teams been scheduled for a round-robin play-in tournament?
I will leave the details of the playoff scenarios for Scott Howard this morning. He can break down the possibilities while fans wallow in anger and depression over losing to the league's best team for the past 18 years on their home court last night.
Today is a new day.
No, I don't have any new news. But knowing how competitive Dragic and coach Hornacek are, and how important this game is to the season, I expect Dragic to be in the lineup unless his foot snaps off entirely. And even then, I can see him wheeling out the Rolleraid and still putting up 30 on the Mavs.
While the Phoenix Suns are getting much of the publicity from coming out of no where this season, you have to tip your cap to the Dallas Mavericks for being able to do much the same thing.
Both teams saw their successful runs dismantled by age, trades and free agency in recent years. But while the Suns finally went young, the Mavericks decided to ride the vet-heavy train as long as Dirk Nowtizki is still around the conduct it.
The Suns patchworked a veteran roster together while Steve Nash and Grant Hill rode into the sunset, just as the Mavs are doing for Dirk. The difference is that (a) Dirk is still really, really, really good and (b) the veterans Dallas signed are better than the one the Suns signed.
Dallas surrounded Dirk with two guards who can run a great offense around him - Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon. While I'd argue those two are overpaid, they have helped the Mavs put up more wins this season than anyone anticipated. Veterand Sam Dalembert has been an unexpected anchor in the middle of late as well.
Dallas still can't defend very well, and as I wrote the other day they have not beaten good teams over the past couple of months (5-8 against playoff-seeded Western conference teams over their last 26 total games now).
But they still have Dirk, and they have a leg up on their counterparts in this playoff chase with one more win (48) and only needing to beat one of the Suns or Grizzlies to make the playoffs. Good on the Mavs. Here's hoping that win comes over the Grizzlies, who they are 3-0 against this season.
What a rollercoaster!
As Lon Babby likes to say, and Steve Nash said before him (in the 2006 playoffs), "After every win, it's like we're never going to lose again. And after every loss, it's like we're never going to win again."
Going into the second half against the Spurs last night, leading by 13 without Dragic, it appeared the Suns might just run the table on the rest of the season. That's how good they'd been playing by getting up 17 on the Clippers (before losing to Chris Paul's heroics), pasting the Trailblazers, outlasting the Thunder and taking care of business against the Pelicans.
But those last two quarters were dreadful. The Spurs outscored the Suns by 21, and now many of us wonder if the Suns' clock might have suddenly struck midnight and the Mavs and Grizz might embarrass the Suns over the next three days.
Young playmaker Eric Bledsoe nearly had a triple double (30 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists) but committed big turnovers at inopportune times, showing he's not fully mature yet and really needs the Dragon at his side in these tight moments. After the game, Bledsoe was derided as selfish by some, highlighted by an assist attempt of all things. Such is the life of a fan trying to lay blame somewhere, anywhere after a tough loss.
What a ride, huh?
With 47 wins, the Suns have already won more games than any Suns team in four years and the future is brighter than it's been in almost a decade.
After the Suns lost the game at home against the Clippers, it appeared the writing was on the wall back then (9 long days ago). If you can't hold a 17-point lead at home, you're not a playoff team. But then the Blazers and Thunder found out the hard way the Suns season was NOT over yet.
Let's hope the Mavericks and Grizzlies see the desperate Suns again.
The obvious match-up is to point to Dirk vs. anyone who's going to guard him, or with Dragic/Bledsoe vs. Ellis/Calderon, but I'm going to switch it up here.
All of those guys will get their points, rebounds, assists tonight. The difference in the game will be the supporting players. Just like last night against the Spurs, it's all about who steps up from the shadows.
If Marion and Carter outplay Tucker and Green, the Suns are going to have a really tough time winning the game, and vice versa.
Both Marion and Carter are former Suns who love to run it in the Suns faces that they were let go so unceremoniously. This is the perfect opportunity to lay it on the Suns by cementing their playoff spot and effectively knocking the Suns out at the same time. Both players are on their last legs - Carter is 92 years old while Marion is approaching 100 - so this may be their last chance to do serious damage to their former team.
In the Suns' favor, Dallas is 16-10 since the All-Star break have lost 8 of their last 13 against West playoff teams. They score a lot of points at home, but give up a lot of points too.
The Suns are 17-11 since the break and have won 10 of their last 15 against Western playoff seeded teams.
But hurting the Suns is that Dallas is on their home floor and needs the win almost as bad as the Suns do. Dallas only needs to split their last two games to guarantee a playoff berth, but doing it on their home floor is a lot easier than on the road (in Memphis).
Expect a barn burner. The Suns and Mavs will fight tooth and nail, dive for every loose ball and will win on who makes the most hero shots.
The Suns sent a message early with an electric energy level, but the Spurs sent one late by closing out the game and making Phoenix look more like the team that ran out of gas after its second game in two nights...
The Suns controlled the tip and it took Gerald Green all of seven seconds to draw first blood with a driving layup. The majority of the first quarter continued that theme.
After the Spurs took a 9-7 lead Phoenix erupted for a 28-5 run incited by catalysts Eric Bledsoe and Gerald Green. The Spurs looked like they were stuck in quicksand and the Suns were nearly giving me vertigo from the way they were running circles around their opponents. It was easy to discern that the Suns plan was to play frenetically and they were executing that plan like a team possessed.
I would have to imagine the Spurs fans in attendance were stunned because I know I was... 28-5 runs tend to have that effect.
Despite being staggered the Spurs managed to regain their composure enough to close on a 7-0 run of their own and pull to within 37-24 to end the first quarter. The Spurs escaped the first quarter in better shape than they could have been and appeared poised to take advantage of their good fortune. In typical Spurs fashion, the Spurs did Spurs things until suddenly the Suns were calling a timeout to stop their own bleeding as their bloated lead had been whittled down to single digits (41-32).
Any night the Suns play it's a pretty safe bet to save one of those SportsCenter top 10 spots for Gerald Green's amazing antics. Tonight's double pump dump was thrown down with 1:05 to go in the second quarter. Danny Green was doing his best to not be outgreened by carrying his reeling squad and keeping them within striking distance. He poured in 11 in the second quarter and 19 in the half.
There was some serious Green on Green action going on here.
Game time decision Tony Parker managed just 4 points on 2-7 shooting in the half.
And there was Eric Bledsoe. Sometimes he is scary fast. He drew a breakaway foul when he jumped a pass lane with Patty Mills barely being able to do anything but instinctually flail after him as he blew past. Eric had 19 points, six rebounds and five assists in the first half.
San Antonio showed early in the third quarter that they weren't going anywhere. If the Suns wanted this they were going to have to earn it.
That Danny Green guy (the lesser Green) managed to knock down a four point play early in the third... It was his fifth three and gave him 23 points, one below his season high, with plenty of basketball left to play.
Gerald returned fire with a step back three of his own and then got to the free throw line to push the Suns back up by 11 (72-61) after a Spurs surge cut their lead to six. The Spurs just kept pushing, though, and Green (Danny) hit another three a few moments later to pull San Antonio back within four (72-68).
The Greens were hoisting it up without compunction.
Amidst the Greenfest Tony Parker, who had been conspicuously quiet in the first half, was able to pour in 14 points of his own in the first six minutes of the period.
That Spurs crowd that was stunned earlier was now really, really loud.
Marco Belinelli hit a jumper with 2:45 left in the third and the Spurs had climbed all the way back up the mountain. They now led the Suns 79-78. The final tally on the carnage in the third quarter was 37-19 in favor of the bad guys. Right now the Suns were on the wrong side of a game of huge swings.
Luckily, the Spurs momentum didn't carry over from the third quarter to the fourth and the Suns were able to regain their footing. Markieff Morris got into the flow of the game and scored six straight for Phoenix as they briefly took back the lead. Things ping-ponged around for a few minutes as Kawhi Leonard did some damage for the Spurs before a ginormous Danny Green (the lesser Green?) three gave the Spurs a 106-100 lead with 1:59 to go.
Eric Bledsoe beasted through the lane for an emphatic slam dunk on the ensuing possession to cut the lead to four, but the Suns couldn't creep any closer. Gerald Green and Channing Frye both got clean looks from three that would have cut the lead to one but couldn't connect. Bledsoe had an open path to the basket on the latter of those and probably should have taken the two to make it a one possession game.
But he didn't.
In fact, the only blemishes on Bledsoe's career night (30 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists) were his seven turnovers and questionable decision making down the stretch.
But this night was more about how well the Spurs played coming back from a huge deficit than it was about the Suns squandering a big lead and a huge opportunity.
The Spurs are just really, really good and Danny Green's career high 33 points was just a little too much tonight.
The Suns will need to shake this one off and hope that Goran is ready to play tomorrow night, because in this crazy race to the finish line the Suns just got jumped by the Mavericks and Grizzlies and now sit in ninth with just three games to go.