Wow, what a difference a week makes.
Last Sunday, the Phoenix Suns were thisclose to a 5-1 road trip, leading OKC 91-86 to start the 4th quarter despite Steve Nash running around on a hobbled "midsection". A win would have put the Suns into 8th position, ahead of Memphis with 3 home games one the docket. Sure, they were tough outs, but neither Houston, Denver nor Orlando had won in Phoenix in eons.
This was it. This was the Suns' time. In fact, 8th-seed Memphis helped the Suns by merely splitting their last 4 games (against Dallas, OKC, NY and Miami). And the Suns schedule includes 3 meetings with 7th seeded, but fading, New Orleans. Watch out playoffs, here come the Suns!
But alas, it was not meant to be. The Suns lost to OKC in overtime, lost Frye to injury, barely beat Houston, lost Nash to injury and were pummeled by Denver and Orlando.
Ugh. Bad week in the desert.
Can the ship be righted? Of course. The Suns are still only 1.5 games out of the playoff picture, and still face 7th-seeded Hornets 3 times before the end of the season.
But forget the playoffs for a minute.
Focus today on an epic HEAD to HEAD matchup. Where the Suns' player is the big brother, and the former understudy is the one who has to prove himself.
LLLLL-Let's get ready to RUMBLLLLLLLLLLLLLLE!
Monday - Houston Rockets
In last week's game against the Rockets, we were all worried about the backup PG matchup - Goran Dragic vs. Aaron Brooks - because they were traded for each other.
But guess what we forgot? That maybe Houston PG Kyle Lowry wanted to prove something. Lowry went off for 32 points on 11-18 shooting (7-11 on threes) and the Suns only won because Vince Carter and Hakim Warrick exploded for 64 points between them.
Expect Lowry to want to prove it even harder in his home arena, but also expect Brooks to light it up as well. Brooks, who went 0-6 in that game last week, had the double-whammy of his first game IN Phoenix and his first game AGAINST the Rockets.
This time, it's even more personal. If Nash sits out Monday, Aaron Brooks will go head to head against Lowry as starting point guards for their respective teams.
These guys played together for 2.5 seasons.
In 2008-2009, second-year PG Aaron Brooks started the last 35 games (13 pts, 3.7 assists, 39% 3-pt, 30.8 mins) after Rafer Alston was traded to Orlando. Kyle Lowry was acquired midseason from Memphis and played 21 minutes a game as Brooks' backup (7.6 pts, 3.6 assists, 25% 3-pt). The Rockets went 26-9 with Brooks as the starter - remember, that was when the Rockets ran off 22 straight wins without Ming or McGrady. Little Aaron Brooks was the PG during that run. Brooks was even more effective in 13 playoff games - 16.8 points, 3.4 assists, 42% 3-pt, 34 mins. The Rockets eventually fell to the Lakers in 7 games in the second round, after losing Yao Ming early in the series.
In 2009-2010, Brooks started all 82 games and won the league's Most Improved Player award. He averaged 19.6 pts, 5.3 assists, 39% 3-pt, 35.6 mins, and led the league the 3-pointers made. Lowry backed him up again for 68 games with 9 pts, 4.5 assists, 27% 3-pt on 24.7 minutes. They often played together as well, for 10+ minutes a night. The Rockets went 42-40 with Brooks as the starter, despite having lost Ron Artest and Yao Ming since the prior season and having no superstars on the team.
Then Brooks wanted an extension on his rookie deal, much like Dudley wanted (and got) his. Why did he want to get paid? Maybe because in his first 3 seasons he had an overall 68-49 record as a starter, led them to a near-upset of LA, won the MIP award, and led the league in 3-pointers.
When Houston didn't meet his demands, he sulked. Then he got hurt, and Kyle Lowry took his starting job while Brooks rehabbed. Lowry has stepped in very nicely with averages of 13.2 pts, 6.6 assists, 39% 3-pt on 33 minutes, with the Rockets going 31-28 with Lowry as the starter so far this season.
But did he really beat out Brooks? Or did he take advantage of a situation to become the starter? Now you know why Lowry really wanted to prove himself last week, and likely will want to do it again on Monday night.
But so should Aaron Brooks.
Hopefully, Brooks is enough of an alpha dog to show off his talent to the Houston faithful. He's got the starting gig, with Nash nursing an injury. All the minutes he wants. Playing with a team just as talented as his old one.
This is gonna be good.
BROOKS vs. LOWRY. May the smallest man win.
Scola is likely out again. No word on whether his knee is any better since missing the past week+ of games.
Losing Channing Frye just as he was becoming one of the most important players on our team hurt. Losing Steve Nash, by far the most important player, bar none, was excruciating.
In a game that would have taken every healthy Suns player playing over their head, I guess the outcome of this game wasn't at all surprising. However, with the Suns down by only 9 at halftime, the game was definitely in reach for Phoenix. You can argue all you want about "momentum" and whatnot; we've all seen this team shoot the lights out and turn the game around faster than you can say "Memphis is only 1.5 games back."
Unfortunately, that version of the Suns didn't show up in the third quarter. Instead, we found an inspired and intense Dwight Howard, chasing shot after shot and battling for rebounds. If only we could find consistent production like that on a nightly basis from our starters...but then again, that's why he's Dwight "Fast Don't Lie" Howard.
More musings on what went wrong (plus a look at what the Suns' playoff picture looks like) after the jump.
First off, I'd like to say this: yes, this game was depressing. It's never fun to be completely manhandled on national TV. But does this mean the Suns' season is over? Absolutely not. I'll get to the playoff picture later, but the Suns, after this loss, are only 1.5 games behind Memphis for the 8th seed in the West. Not too bad.
Let's focus on the "game" we just watched, though. I only use quotation marks because really, this was never actually a game the Suns could have won. If the Suns had come out firing from the get go, maybe. If Vince Carter, Hakim Warrick, Mickael Pietrus and Zabian Dowdell didn't combine to shoot 27.7% from the field (10/36), we could have had a shot. There are a lot of "if" statements that could have changed the tune of things, but they just didn't happen.
As mentioned previously, the Suns were down only 9 points by halftime. And, if you recall, in my game preview, I said Aaron Brooks would have to have a big game to give the Suns a puncher's chance. For the first half, it seemed he was intent on doing just that. He put up 19 points that gave an otherwise stagnant Suns offense a shot.
Unfortunately, he didn't score in the second half. Perhaps he was too gassed from giving it his all in the first half, or maybe the Magic defense was really just that good. Despite the disappearing act in the second half, you have to give Brooks credit for bringing it to start the game.
As poorly as the Suns played tonight without Frye and Nash, the Orlando Magic definitely deserve credit for this win. Dwight Howard was amazing. Jason Richardson had no reservations throwing it down and playing a well rounded game against his former team. Heck, even Gilbert Arenas decided he was healthy enough to put up respectable numbers. The Magic were the better team, and it showed.
Not much else needs to be said about this game, so I won't say much else. However, with the rumblings around Suns-land (mostly manifest in the GameThread) about the Suns "not having a shot" at making the playoffs, I have a bit of a different tune.
The Playoff Picture
I mentioned earlier that with this loss, the Suns still sit at 9th place in the West, only 1.5 games back from the 8th place Memphis Grizzlies. However, aside from that, things are still looking favorable for the Suns to make a late season run at the postseason.
In the 18 games that remain in this season for Phoenix, only 10 remain against teams with a record better than .500. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), 9 of those games are against current Western Conference playoff seeds. That includes three games against New Orleans, two games against Dallas, two games against San Antonio, one against the Lakers and one against Oklahoma City.
I, for one, am on the optimistic side of those games. While yes, having to play teams as tough as the Mavericks, Spurs, Thunder and Lakers is an arduous task for any team, it could be beneficial to the Suns. With a couple of those teams looking forward to the playoffs (namely the Spurs, Mavs and Lakers), we'll likely see rest coming to their aging stars. That means rest for players like Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. We'll also likely see Jason Kidd's minutes monitored. Heck, even Kobe might leave a couple games early.
With the playoffs, one thing is (generally) certain: teams that are safely secured in their spot in the playoffs will not take the risk of injury to a star (especially an aging one) just to gut out another victory. This is why I'm optimistic for the Suns' chances.
With Steve Nash getting much needed rest in a game that would have been tough to win even with him on the court and Channing Frye possibly returning as soon as late next week*, the Suns may have just enough time to squeak into the playoffs. It may not be the triumphant ride into the postseason we enjoyed last year, but every playoff appearance is a positive for the team. Even if it is a first round defeat.
So, while the Suns gave an incredibly lackluster effort in a disappointing defeat, it is not the end of the season for the boys in purple and orange. This site is called Bright Side of the Sun for a reason - so let's live up to it.
* Frye's original prognosis was to be out for 2-3 weeks. 2 weeks from the initial injury would put us around Thursday, March 24th. There is still no word on when Frye might be returning to the court.