The Cinderella season is over. After pulling into 7th in the West just five days ago, the Suns lost three straight huge games and find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoffs. For the third game in a row, a Suns opponent solidified their playoff spot at the expense of the Suns.
The Suns played their hardest and stayed right there into the final minute before giving up big buckets to the opposing team and failing to score on their end when they needed it the most.
The Suns took a 91-90 lead before Mike Conley made a three-pointer and then committed a turnover on their own end that resulted in Zach Randolph getting a breakaway layup to put the Grizzlies up four. Just. like. that.
The Suns couldn't close the deal while the playoff-veteran team could.
Zach Randolph (32, 9) and Mike Conley (13, 7 with a big game-deciding three) led the Grizzlies when they needed it most, while the Suns were led by their own big three of Goran Dragic (14, 4, 5, 4), Eric Bledsoe (13, 5, 3, 2) and Markieff Morris (21).
But the Suns were outrebounded 38-29, outshot 52% to 49%, and on three pointers 6-15 vs. 5-25. The Suns just couldn't close the deal.
In four losses to the Grizzlies this year, the Suns have scored just 91 in three of them.
After the game, Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph was quite effusive on his respect for the Suns.
"It was real intense. The game went back and forth," he said of the 15 lead changes in the fourth quarter alone. "Those two plays at the end were big for us."
Then he went on, when he didn't need to, about the Suns whose season-long fight for the playoffs just ended despite being in line for 48 wins: "Coach Hornacek did a great job and those young guys over there, you've got to take your hat off to them. They had a great season. Bledsoe, he's a stud. Dragic and all those other guys are great young players. They're a great team with a lot of talent and up and coming."
Grizzlies C Marc Gasol talked about how his Grizzlies team went through a lot of losing when they were younger, and now they're the veteran team that can close out those games, referring to the Suns inability to get to the playoffs.
Point guard Eric Bledsoe made some pointed comments about his role on the team.
"Just got to take all the positives, the positives of this whole season," Bledsoe said. "Now, everybody got a little bit of experience going into next year, what it takes to take it to the next level. Everybody hasn't been in this situation before. Like I said, next year we take it to the next level."
AZ Republic reporter Paul Coro said the Suns were shellshocked after the Dallas loss, and Coach Hornacek admitted the Suns were still depressed and quiet today.
Add in a Memphis Grizzlies team the Suns really can't match up well against, and you've got a recipe for a bad home loss to end the slate at US Airways Center.
The first quarter proved all those dire prognostications to be true.
The Suns missed 7 of 8 three pointers and 12 of 18 shots overall, and we down to the Grizzlies 24-14 after one period. Their play was so bad that "only" a 10-point deficit was closer than it appeared.
But even in the second quarter, the Suns had no life. They had effort, but no life. A lot of bad decisions, isolation ball, missed jumpers and bad rotations.
And oh the rebounding problems. Tony Allen once slipped in between three Suns rebounders on the back side of the rim all waiting for the missed shot, all within three feet of the rim, and stole the rebound away. Three Suns were there. Three.
The Suns ended the half on a 9-0 run though, to pull within 46-42 at halftime, and then started the second half on an 11-4 run to take a 3-point lead at 53-50.
The Suns played so bad in the first 20 minutes of the game that the Grizzlies had a hard time re-engaging.
Luckily for the Grizzlies, the Suns throttled themselves with six straight bad offensive possessions in the half court and allowed the Grizzlies to retake the lead. Suns took all jumpers, all contested at least partly, all misses.
The Grizzlies took a 59-55 lead before the Suns decided to play ball again, this time driving hard to the hoop by Markieff Morris on two possessions sandwiching a Bledsoe drive as the Suns tied it at 61-61.
The Suns were back. It took a half a basketball game, but the Suns were re-engaged in a big way.
And so were the Grizzlies. The game see-sawed back and forth for a long time as both teams played their hearts out.
Every possession came close to drawing blood as both teams wanted the win desperately.
No team had more than a 3-point lead in the last quarter plus as they fought and clawed for every point like there was no tomorrow.
And guess what? For both teams, that's exactly what it is. The Grizz HAVE to win this game. The Suns HAVE to win this game.
This. Is. It.
With only two games remaining Phoenix's tenuous chances of making the playoffs still hang in the balance. Are Jeff Hornacek's chances of winning NBA Coach of the Year dependent on that outcome?
This article could just as easily be about how the Suns falling just short of the playoffs might affect their players chances of winning Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year awards or, in Goran Dragic's case, an All-NBA selection (or whether he finishes second or third team). I actually pondered over agglutinating all of these topics into one article, but in the end my
blatant laziness hectic schedule swayed my decision to focus on the coaching award. If my workload was just a little lighter perhaps I'd be writing a more involved piece that included those other subjects.
Cause and effect.
I think it would be apocryphal logic to assume that the Suns making or missing the playoffs won't influence the sportswriters who vote on the award. With several other deserving candidates populating the landscape it may just be a few votes that swing the outcome. Perhaps faltering down the stretch sullies the team's feel good story in the eyes of some and the team morphs into "the little engine that couldn't."
While it seems like the national media finally caught on that something special was sprouting out of the sweltering Sonoran Desert, every time I hear someone say Horna "check" on a show or game that is nationally televised it makes me skeptical that person is doing a critical examination of Jeff's qualifications...
Here are a few other historical trends associated with the NBA Coach of the Year award that I'd almost guarantee the Horna "check" guys aren't aware of... This is a situation where the patterns don't dictate the selection process, but the end result establishes some pretty salient patterns.
The worst record by a team whose coach won the award was 33-48 when Johnny Kerr led the Chicago Bulls to the playoffs in their first season (1966-67). That record is bad enough that it wouldn't even make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference this season. It was the only time a team finished with a losing record.
The only team not to make the playoffs was the 1999-00 Orlando Magic, who finished 41-41 when Doc Rivers won the award. That team was widely considered to be the worst team in the league at the beginning of the season, but managed to stultify the pundits despite falling just short of the postseason. The Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks both finished one game ahead of the Magic (42-40) and took the seventh and eighth seeds.
In the last 16 years only Gregg Popovich (2002-03 and 2011-12) and Hubie Brown (1977-78 and 2003-04) were repeat winners. It seems like the main criteria for the award is exceeding expectations/season to season improvement, so coaches like Phil Jackson, who had routinely outstanding teams, weren't able to stockpile Red Auerbach trophies. On another note, how impressive is it that Brown sandwiched two decades and change in between his awards?
Since 1988-89 (25 seasons) only three teams whose coaches have won finished below 50 wins (or a .610 winning %) - the 1994-95 Lakers (48-34), 1999-00 Magic (41-41) and 2006-07 Raptors (47-35).
The Raptors are already +13 from last season's win total with 47. One more victory would set a franchise record for most wins in a season. Toronto has clinched the Atlantic Division for the first time since the 2006-07 season. That season Sam Mitchell was named coach of the year as Toronto finished 47-35. Also working in Casey's favor is the perception that winning in Toronto comes with a greater degree of difficulty than many other markets.
The Bulls were 14-18 when they traded Luol Deng in a move that most people felt was akin to throwing in the towel. The main question then was not whether they could make the playoffs, but if there would be a fire sale that resulted in even more attrition for a team besieged by injuries to its star player. Since then the Bulls are 33-15 and site tied for the third seed with the Raptors. For what it's worth, Thibodeau won the award and finished second in the 2012 voting.
The Bobcats will finish with a winning record and make the playoffs for only the second time in their 10 year history. Charlotte (41-39) is already +20 wins from last season's abysmal 21-61 record where they finished just one game above the Orlando Magic for worst record in the league. So basically worst in the league to making the playoffs. Clifford is also a rookie who has defied odds by succeeding in what may have been the worst coaching job in the league over the last decade.
Portland is the third team in the NBA that has improved by at least 20 wins from last season. I'm guessing that there usually aren't that many teams with such vast improvement on a regular basis, but haven't fact checked the veracity of this assertion. The Blazers have the most victories of the teams on this list (53), but were also considered to be a team on the rise (and one that probably underperformed last season) heading into this campaign.
Carlisle is another former winner of the award and piloted the Mavs back into the playoffs after they missed last season to snap a string of 12 consecutive appearances. He'd be lower on my pecking order, but he did get Dirk Nowitzki back in the postseason after I envisioned them following in the footsteps of the Nash Suns...
You have to admire those rare instances where a person can make excellence seem so routine. If I had a vote I'd have to think long and hard about him and I'm a Suns fan...
At +22 wins the Suns are already ensured of having the biggest increase from last season. Phoenix also boasts the advantage of having been viewed as an abhorrent team coming into the season. In terms of results compared to expectations the Suns top this list, competing for a playoff spot in the stacked Western Conference. The marked improvement in many players on the roster also lends credence to his ability to coach up the talent on the roster. The negative, the basis of this analysis and whatnot, is that the Suns are the only team on this list that might not make the playoffs.
Hornacek's coach of the year candidacy mirrors the trajectory of the team. He has wildly exceeded expectations and even his own optimistic predictions (e.g. 103 points per game). Maybe he can still follow the path of Doc Rivers and be the second coach to win the honor despite failing to reach the playoffs. After all, the situation is quite similar.
But I'm not sure I like the odds of him backing into the award. So just like the Suns season may not have a story book ending, maybe Hornacek's first year won't be recognized in the way it might have been. That would add another blemish of disappointment to what has been a great season.
Things can be great and end badly. I've seen a lot of great movies with completely disappointing endings. Right now the Suns season is kind of looking like one of those, but maybe instead this one still has a surprise plot twist left.
Never trust the Lakers.
Back in the mid 1980s there was only one thing I loved more than van surfing - and that was basketball. When I used to play my old coach (Coach Finstock if you're familiar) had just four rules for ensuring your life was cream cheese: (1) never get less than twelve hours sleep; (2) never play cards with a guy who has the same first name as a city; (3) never get involved with a woman with a tattoo of a dagger on her body; and (4) never, ever trust the Lakers to do anything good for you.
It was that 4th rule that was the most important.
To keep things as simple for all of us as is possible here is the way the Phoenix Suns can still make the playoffs:
Now most of us have become resigned to the fact that Dallas will have the 7 seed sewn up in that scenario and thus no motivation to play their starters signifigant minutes - if at all. Yet in a season of wrinkles there's one more wrinkle left to....unwrinkle?
Should the Golden State Warriors lose their home game tonight against Minnesota - a team I'm assured is amazing based on their point differential - then Dallas will go into their road game with Memphis on Wednesday with a shot at jumping the Full Squad for the 6 seed and the right to avoid Oklahoma City. Dallas would still need to hope Golden State loses their game to Denver on the same night but the Mavs game starts 2 and a half hours before the Denver/GSW contest.
So you know - there's sort of a chance.
Sunday April 13th Key Western Conference Results:
Memphis Grizzlies 102 Los Angeles Lakers 90 (Recap) - Considering I had little to no hope for the Lakers pulling this game out my viewing of this contest was passive at best. For that reason I did not permit myself to enjoy a glimmer of excitement when the Lakers held a 9 point lead in the middle of the 2nd quarter, nor did I jump for joy when they briefly held a 1 point lead in the 3rd. During a 34-17 dominating swing in the third quarter the Grizzlies proved why I should have no trust in the Lakers and won the game going away.
Mike Conley had 24 to lead Memphis while Marc Gasol added 18 points and 15 rebounds. Wesley Johnson played 40 minutes last night - if that alone isn't enough to get a "what did you expect" then I'm not sure what is.
On the mild plus side, Conley and Gasol played 35 and 36 minutes respectively which is more than the "come out of the tip off, score a bunch, and laugh our way to the bench" that I expected.
Current Western Conference Standings:
|2. Oklahoma City
|3. LA Clippers
|4. Houston||53||27||.663||9||5-5||WON 1|
|6. Golden State
Monday April 14th Western Conference Games of Significance:
Grizzlies @ Suns - Last home game of the season. Win and the Suns stay alive for at least two more days - lose and it's completely over. Memphis has already beaten the Suns three times this season, all three without their best player. If there was ever a time to turn the tide, this would be it. Considering Goran Dragic is still playing on a bum ankle and the quotes from Saturday made it seem like all the team's eggs were in that basket - I've reverted to my standard lack of optimism for this one.
Timberwolves @ Warriors - This one tips a half hour after the Suns game. As stated above this would matter in that should Minnesota pull off the upset, Dallas could potentially be playing for the 6 seed on Wednesday.