Will the Suns Make the Playoffs?
The Suns dropped their fourth in a row Monday, to a Grizzlies team that they now find themselves even with in the loss column in the standings. After jumping out to a 14-3 start to the season, the team has lost 15 of its last 25 games. And with more problems than apparent solutions at this point, it's fair to wonder whether or not the team can fix things in time to hold on to one of the eight available playoff spots in the uber-competitive Western Conference.
Phoenix's habit of blowing leads has been the hot topic around this team for the past couple of weeks, and why not? In the Suns' last three home games, they've had first-half leads of 16, 13, and 24 points. And all three times, the opposing team managed to come back to take the lead. Now, the Suns did win two of those games, but that was at home; on the road, things usually end differently when you allow a team to come back on you like that, as was the case in both Indiana and Atlanta this past week.
The Suns led the Pacers by 24 points in the first half, before allowing 70 points in the second half and eventually losing by eight. For those of you not great with numbers, that's a ridiculous 32-point turnaround from late in the second quarter through the end of the game.
Less than ideal, to say the least.
The next game in Atlanta, the Suns once again held a double-digit first half lead, this time going up 12 on the Hawks early in the second quarter. By now, you shouldn't be surprised to learn that Phoenix gave back all of this lead and then some, to trail by as many as seven points late in the third. But the Suns fought back this time, only to lose on a long three-pointer at the buzzer from Jamal Crawford.
At least the team competed for all 48 in that one, so that should have been a positive that they could have carried over into the following game in Charlotte, right? Wrong.
The recently red-hot Bobcats laid the smack down from the opening tip, and Phoenix, seemingly still-crushed by the previous night's loss, fell behind 12-0 to start the game, was down 21 points at the end of the first quarter, and trailed by 30 once the first half came to its merciful conclusion.
Alvin Gentry, seeking something, anything to get his team back on track, changed out 40 percent of his starting lineup for Monday's MLK-day game in Memphis. Robin Lopez started in place of Channing Frye, and Leandro Barbosa got the nod at the two spot in favor of Jason Richardson.
Now, the Lopez idea wasn't a bad one, as the Suns could certainly use more of a defensive look to their starting five. And Frye has been abysmal over his last five games, shooting just 6-for-29 from the field, and never scoring more than seven points during that stretch. But Barbosa for Richardson?
"It's kind of mind-boggling," Richardson told the Arizona Republic. "It bothered me a little bit. I'm going to go out there with minutes I get and do what I can to help the team win. It's a little unfair, but if that's what it's going to take to make our team successful, that's the major thing with me."
Mind-boggling indeed. In games when J-Rich has scored 20-plus this season, the Suns' record is 12-2. Add in the fact that Barbosa has really struggled lately, and that's not a move that would seem to be in the team's best interest.
At least the new starting lineup didn't have to worry about blowing a big lead: Lopez played well overall, but picked up two fouls in the game's first four and a half minutes, and the Suns were down 14 points by the end of the first quarter.
So, this is the state of the Suns. A team that surprised early on by playing as a unit, and perhaps above its overall level of talent, now finds itself in a situation where the rest of the league has largely figured them out. The question now becomes whether they can make enough adjustments in the second half of the season to keep themselves in the hunt for a playoff spot.
Steve Nash has talked about this recently, and has acknowledged the fact that talent-wise, the Suns may not be better than a lot of the teams they've faced.
"We've got to realize that we're not more talented than most teams," Nash said, before his team set out for their road trip. "The reason we win is that we play well together. There's a very fine line between us playing well and beating the majority of the teams in this league, and us being a little bit out of rhythm and out of sync and being in the lower half of teams in this league.
"We have a very small room for error as far as being one of the top teams, or playoff teams, and being a team that can get beat any night. We've just got to keep that in mind."
If the playoffs began today, Phoenix would have the six seed. But the team is tied in the loss column with four others -- two of which sit in the nine and 10 spots, and are named the Jazz and the Grizzlies. Both of those teams figure to be in the race down to the season's final days, and the same goes for the Rockets, Thunder, and Blazers, all of whom are right there with the Suns record-wise.
It's perhaps too early to panic if you're the Suns -- although simultaneously replacing two members of the starting lineup certainly might be viewed as a form of desperation by some. At the halfway point of the season, Phoenix is still firmly in the playoff picture; Hollinger gives them an almost 70 percent chance of holding on and squeaking in as the eight seed.
At this point, however, the Suns' recent problems are far from being solved.
And let's not forget, the trade talks for Amar'e Stoudemire are expected to heat up in the coming weeks, regardless of the team's performance. If the offers are more reasonable than they were a season ago -- Phoenix would likely want talent this time around, as opposed to the expiring contracts and salary cap space that they were seeking when Shaquille O'Neal was still on the books -- the team might be forced to closely consider getting something in return for an All-Star who can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
Especially if the losing continues. And right now, the prospect of getting to the playoffs looks to be much more of a long shot than the sure thing it seemed to be earlier in the season.