After 64 games, the upstart, surprising Phoenix Suns have finally delivered what the preseason and mid season prognosticators predicted.
Losers of seven of their last 10 games, the Suns have dropped from 7th in the playoff picture to 9th and into lottery land. They sit two games back of surging Memphis and Dallas with 18 games left in the season.
Does the team fail to realize winning games in March is a lot tougher than winning games in December or January, with every player except Goran Dragic playing a bigger role in a playoff push than they have ever played before?
"It's possible," coach Hornacek said. "Teams are stepping it up. Our guys, you'd think we'd realize it."
The Suns returned home from a tough 4-game stretch against West playoff teams, glad to have Eric Bledsoe back and possibly thinking they had an easy game in the bag. But it was Cleveland, losers of 4 straight themselves, who came out on fire to take an early lead.
"They (Cleveland) looked like the team that was trying to get into the playoffs," Hornacek said. "And we looked like the team that just wanted to play a basketball game."
Once again, the Suns dug themselves a big hole in the first quarter, finding themselves down 37-24 after one stanza. This repeats a pattern of large, early deficits that requires so much energy to get back to even that often the team lacks the wherewithal to finish the deal before running out of steam.
"We have to look at changes in the first group," Hornacek said. "At this point, we can't worry about making changes in the lineup."
Due to injury and suspension, the Suns have played five different starting lineups in the past 8 games - an 8-game stretch in which their defense has been the worst in the league. And it all starts with that first quarter level of effort.
"Obviously, not having our emotional and physical leader in P.J. hurt us," Hornacek said. "With all those loose balls, maybe somebody else gets them. It was right from the first play of the game… the ball bounces loose and we took a little stab at it, but that was about it. They got to them quicker."
Tucker will return in the next game, setting the stage for the Suns to play their best possible starting lineup for the last 18 games of the season. Bledsoe and Dragic at the guard spots with Tucker, Frye and Plumlee down low have started only 16 of 64 games this season but have won 12 of those 16 games. That group is a good mix of defense (Tucker, Plumlee, Bledsoe) and offense (Frye's outside shooting, Dragic, Bledsoe) that generally took a first-quarter lead when they played as a unit.
Against Cleveland, Eric Bledsoe scored 15 points and had a game-high nine assists in 32 minutes off the bench as he returned to action for the first time since December 30, 2013. He was quick and decisive.
"We have to play like we have been playing from the jump – proving people wrong," Bledsoe said after the game. "Like I said, we are not coming out like we use to. It is going to change. It is going to have to. We have a tough stretch of games going on the road, so we just have to take care of business."
While Bledsoe spoke to the media, Goran Dragic slumped in front of his locker with a big ice pack on his rib cage and a towel over his head for five full minutes. When the media shifted over to Markieff Morris, Bledsoe walked over to his partner in crime for a little chat. It looked like Bledsoe was checking up on Dragic to make sure he was okay.
Markieff Morris recorded his eight double-double of the season and second in two games against Cleveland this season with 18 points (8-13 FG) and 10 rebounds. Markieff’s eight double-doubles as a reserve this season are most in the NBA.
"You see Memphis and Dallas winning those games and we cannot worry about that," Morris said, still talking the talk. "We have to worry about ourselves. It is our second or third loss in a row… we just have to play one game at a time."
Keef has not started a game this season after being a starter his first two years in Phoenix. That's fine as long as the team is winning, but you have to wonder if Keef will start grousing as the Suns starters continue to fall behind before he steps on the court and the season winds down to a halt.
Goran Dragic posted his 30th game with 20+ points of the season and his 14th in the last 20 games with exactly 20 points against the Cavs. Over his last 20 games, Dragic is averaging 23.1 points (.541 FG%, .500 3FG%) and 6.3 assists.
"I don't know what's going on with us right now," Dragic said when the media gathered around him. "We have to get those things together, because we are still in the playoff hunt. It's not over. We still have 18 games left. Those first quarters, they kill us. It takes a lot of energy to get back and then you're tired and trying to hit shots."
Dragic has put so much of himself into this season to keep the team afloat that he looks more and more exhausted after every game. But he wouldn't have it any other way.
"Physically, I am on the edge. Everything hurts," he said. "Bruising but nothing else, nothing big. It hurts more when you lose."
Dragic is more concerned with the lack of energy from a team fighting for the right to play into late April.
"I don't know what is going on with us, if I'm honest. We are just in a black hole," he said. "We should want it more than them because we want to play in the playoffs. I don't know, are we tired? The 50/50 balls, they're not ours anymore.
"After every game, we should not stand on our legs. We should fall down. And then if we lose like that, we can say okay I gave everything I got."
Of all the players on the team, only Goran Dragic has had a comparable role in a playoff push when he was with Houston in the spring of 2011 and 2012. Houston came up just short of the playoffs in both seasons, but Dragic was sensational down the stretch.
This season, the Suns are counting on players who have either never been in a playoff push or have held a much smaller role when the going got tough.
"You would think they would know the situation with the games we are in," Hornacek, a rookie coach himself, said. "The standings and that kind of stuff. We do not go over it, but I think everyone understands that at this point everyone has to step it up. You are trying to win games. We have to win games we are suppose too. That is the disappointing part."
Dragic hopes the guys realize that no one is going to hand them a playoff spot. They have to earn it behind their own tough-minded, physical play.
"You have to earn that by yourself," Dragic said. "You have to take that spot. Eric played in playoffs, me, Channing. I think that's it, if I'm not mistaken. It's different basketball. It's not like regular season. Even now, each game should be like that for us."
This is a dark time for the team, but it's important to note that they all really care about the game of basketball and about each other. Maybe the team needed a slap in the face to get back into playing like the underdog and proving people wrong. Going on the road with no one to support them but themselves could be just the right tonic.
"You know, when you're winning everything is okay," Dragic said. "18 games is a lot. I'm glad we have 18 games left, we can turn this around."
Have their ideal starting lineup will help to kick off games right. While P.J. Tucker hasn't played in an NBA playoff game, he has been MVP and won two league titles oversees. Tucker is the NBA's leading rebounder among all players under 6'6" this season. A Phoenix Suns player has not accomplished this feat since Charles Barkley. Bledsoe is a defensive and offensive dynamo. Plumlee looks spry again, with 23 points and 19 rebounds in his last two games.
The Suns have a chance to win a lot more games this season. They need to take that playoff spot with their own stretch of strong play, rather than hope another team hands it to them.
"It's not a bad season for us," Dragic said. "But still we want something more. We believe we can play in playoffs."