The Phoenix Suns just finished a really tough 15-game stretch in which 12 of those games were on the road, a paltry three of 15 were against teams with losing records and only one of those "easy" games was at home.
In fact, going into that 15-game stretch, the 23-22 9th-place Suns were projected by www.basketball-reference.com to drop to 12th place, winning only eight more games the rest of the way to finish 31-35, with only an 11 percent chance of making the playoffs in 5,000 simulations. And that was assuming a healthy Steve Nash and Grant Hill in their lineup the whole time. Alas, Grant Hill needed knee surgery and missed nine of those 15 games. Then Nash tweaked a hip and struggled through the last three, barely playing against San Antonio.
Uh-oh. So much for that optimistic 11 percent chance of making the playoffs, right?
But these are Alvin Gentry's Suns, who always play better in the second half. These are the Suns who fight and claw and craft their way to wins they weren't supposed to get. These are the Suns with only two guys in their entire rotation who was a starter on his team immediately preceding his stint with the Suns (Nash and Redd), and one of those had a "career ending" injury.
What ACTUALLY happened in that 15-game gauntlet was a Suns renaissance. Despite injuries to Nash and Hill, the Suns pulled out eight big wins out of 15 (18-9 since the All-Star break overall) and now have the playoffs in their hands after a beat-down of the once-scary-but-now-tanking Trailblazers.
These Suns, with a 39-year old All-Star and 10 role players, own the 8th seed in the West with four of their last five games at home. Given the tiebreakers and ending schedules for all relevant teams, all it takes is a 3-2 finish (with one of those over Utah) to claim a playoff spot.
Let's take a closer look at how we got here, because in retrospect it is a special story.
This brutal 15-game stretch began inauspiciously on March 20 after the Suns had surged from a 14-20 All-Star break funk to win nine of 11 during a long home stretch that gave them a 23-22 record.
I wrote an article at that time about the schedule getting much tougher for the Suns
Playing only the odds, the Suns could comfortably be expected to win just 4 of those 15 games (Cavaliers, Hornets, Kings and Jazz). But really, that's even a stretch since only 1 of those games (Hornets) is a home game. The other teams will likely be tanking though, enhancing the Suns' chances for a needed W.
But what of the other 11 games in that 15-game stretch? Which of those can the Suns hope to win? Maybe Orlando, the NBA's best impression of Jekyll and Hyde. Maybe Indiana, who just got smoked by an energized Knicks team twice in a row. Maybe the Timberwolves, sans Rubio. And maybe Houston, who the Suns seem to be able to beat fairly often.
So, if all goes really well, then the Suns might take 7 or 8 wins out of this 15-game stretch. But you can't put those 7 or 8 wins in your back pocket. Just thinking reasonably, the Suns will lose at least 2 of those "winnable" games. To offset those losses, the Suns would have to pull off a couple of upsets against better teams just to come out of this 15-game stretch with a .500 record.
And that was when I assumed the Jazz would fade from relevancy. Unfortunately, they have not -- even beating the Mavericks last night in triple overtime to stay within 1/2 game of the Suns.
In fact, the Suns won eight of those 15 and now sit in 8th place in the West for their troubles.
Look at these juicy stats since the All-Star break for the Suns:
- 4th in the NBA in points-per-game at 103.1
- 6th in offensive efficiency
- 5th in assists per game
- 2nd in shooting percentage (.475)
- 3rd fewest turnovers per game
- 6th in blocks per game
- 13th in rebounding (historically a terrible number for the Suns)
- 15th in defensive efficiency
The Phoenix Suns are considered "deep" again. National commentators are touting the play of the bench unit. Opposing bloggers (Dave, from BEdge) mention the Suns depth in game previews. Alvin Gentry called this one of his favorite teams ever, in terms of the collection of guys in that locker room.
Now the Suns need to close the deal. Five games left against playoff-caliber competition: 2nd-seeded Thunder, 4th-seeded Clippers, 6th-seeded Nuggets, 9th-seeded Jazz and finally the top-seeded Spurs. Another gauntlet, but certainly doable. Three wins is all the Suns need.
This is a special 2nd-half, folks. Don't blink or you'll miss it.