Coming out of the NBA All-Star break, the Phoenix Suns were one of the hottest teams in the league going 9-2 over their first 11 games. The Suns who came into the All-Star break with a very underwhelming record of 14-20 over the first half of the season suddenly began playing very well together and clicking on both sides of the court.
For the first time all season, the Suns seemed to be figuring it out ... and they appeared poised to overtake some of the teams clustered at the bottom of the eight playoff spots.
This led many fans and even some analysts to begin taking the Suns seriously again as possible playoff contenders in the Western Conference and recognizing them as one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA who seemed to be peaking at just the right time.
However, since that time the Suns have seemingly crashed back down to Earth losing four of their last six games. The Suns had gone from a losing record to getting back to .500, to a winning record and then back to .500, and now back to a losing record once again.
So what happened?
Well, there are many possible explanations for what has taken place over the last six games, and I will attempt to identify some of the most logical causes ... as well as make some predictions about what could be in store for the Suns over the last 15 games of the season.
Read on after the jump for a breakdown
First, let's look at the 11 teams the Suns faced after the All-Star break when they went 9-2:
Looking at these games the first thing I noticed is that seven of these games were against teams who are currently positioned to make the playoffs (L.A. Clippers twice, OKC Thunder, Dallas, Memphis, Utah, Houston). The Suns went 6-1 in these games ... pretty good. However, only one of these teams was considered a real top-tier team, and that was the OKC Thunder who they happened to lose to. Also, nine of these games were also played at home and only two were played on the road ... Hmmm. The Suns went 8-1 at home and went 1-1 on the road. This could be significant.
Now let's take a look at the last six games in which the Suns went 2-4:
Looking at these last six games there are some noticeable differences from the first 11 games above. This time, five of the six teams are currently positioned to make the playoffs, and two of the six teams are top-tier (Heat, Spurs) of which the Suns lost both. And of course the most obvious difference is that all but one of these games was on the road, and that sole home game was against the 35-14 Spurs ... Not exactly a gimme.
So by looking at the Suns' success in the first 11 games vs. their last six, it becomes obvious that these games in which the Suns have struggled lately were against not only tougher competition, but they were also nearly all on the road. This alone is probably sufficient reason for the recent struggles.
But could there be more to it than just that?
I believe so. Despite playing against some very tough competition over these last six games, the Suns have still been competitive even in most of their losses. For instance, the Suns should have won the game against the Miami Heat, but the Suns couldn't hold their 10 point 4th quarter lead with seven minutes to go. The Heat are a talented team and once they got some momentum they became energized by the home crows and were simply too much for the Suns to handle.
The game against Orlando was an aberration as Marcin Gortat had a horrible game against his former team and the Suns just never stood a chance. But other than that, the Suns were in a position to win all three of the other losses.
So why couldn't they pull out these wins like they had been doing in the first 11 games?
Well, in addition to playing against tougher teams in mostly hostile environments, the Suns have been without their defensive leader in two of the four losses -- missing Grant Hill in the last two games against the Spurs and the Clippers. I'm sure those of you reading this already know how important Grant Hill's defense is to the success of this team, so I won't go into the details here, but in these last two games without Hill we have struggled to get stops when we needed them most, and I believe that was a big part of why the Suns lost.
Not only that, but Steve Nash was playing with a bad back against the Clippers and throughout half the game against the Spurs as well. With Nash limited offensively he was unable to carry the team as he sometimes must, and coupled with the absence of Hill this made it even more difficult for the Suns to compete at their highest level possible.
Don't get me wrong though, there were other factors that contributed to the losses that were certainly within the Suns control, specifically in last night's game against the Clippers. These explanations are only intended to give possible reasons as to why these losses occurred, not to make excuses for anyone. In my opinion, the bench was lacking in energy and hustle and the team as a whole didn't seem to be playing with much intensity or a sense of urgency. It's hard to say if this was because of fatigue from a hard fought game against the Spurs before having to travel to L.A. to play the Clippers last night, or if it was something mental ... but either way, the Suns have to play with more energy and hustle if they want to win these types of games.
So what does this mean? What can we look forward to in the next 15 games?
Well let's take a look at all the remaining games on our schedule:
The good news is that the Suns have a larger mix of home games going forward than we've had over our last six matches. The bad news is the road games still outnumber the home games 8-7. On the other hand, while 11 of these last 15 games are against currently positioned playoff teams, only four of these games will be against top-tier teams (Spurs twice, Thunder, Lakers), and of those four games only one of them is on the road.
Also, the Suns will probably see the return of Grant Hill and their defense as early as this Sunday against the New Orleans Hornets, and hopefully this three-day rest will also give Nash a chance to rest and heal his back. Even after these last four losses, the Suns are still currently sitting in the 10th spot and only two games behind the 7th and 8th seeds. On top of that, the Suns will play each of the three teams currently ahead of them in the standings before the end of the season (Utah twice, Denver, Houston), and they are all winnable games.
With both of their veteran stars back and healthy, and assuming they can remain that way throughout the duration of the season, the Suns should still have one more playoff push left in them and will be looking to finish the season strong. So don't give up Suns fans. These last six games may have seemed like the wheels had fallen off the bus, but the way I see it, they just took an almost unavoidable detour and are now getting right back on the road to victory. Sure, the road may get bumpy along the way but the Suns are still on the right track and remain very capable of making the playoffs.
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