The Phoenix Suns weren't supposed to be here, but they are 10 games over .500 with 22 games to play and right in the thick of a playoff race.
It took a barrage of outside shooting by Matt Barnes for the Los Angeles Clippers to defeat an injury-riddled Suns team on Thursday, but a win is a win. To hear the Clippers post game, you can see the respect they have for the upstart Suns.
"I thought in the first half they were playing in a playoff game and we were not," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said after the game. "I thought in the second half we joined and it became a really good game."
"It was intense," power forward Blake Griffin said. "They just outplayed us and out hustled us the whole first half. Being up 10, down 10, keeping a good demeanor about you; I thought the whole team to fight through adversity was huge. I think that’s going to serve us well late in games, especially in the playoffs."
A coach that's won an NBA Finals. A power forward that's tasted the playoffs the last two years. Both talking about Tuesday's tilt as if it were a good test for playoff basketball.
But who exactly were they playing?
The Clippers were playing a Phoenix Suns team missing two starters to injury, Eric Bledsoe (knee surgery rehab) and Miles Plumlee (knee strain), while a third rotation player (Leandro Barbosa) missed the second half due to a broken wrist. They were playing a Suns team who's top two centers have barely played any minutes recently. Rookie C Alex Len, 20 years old, has gotten DNPs on a regular basis. And backup C Shavlik Randolph was just working out at home in Miami last week, having not played in the NBA since last spring.
The result was a Suns team just not loaded enough to win a playoff-intensity game.
Generally, I'll take a loss that was born on the back of Matt Barnes having to hit 12 of 13 shots just to get the Clippers a lead.
But it's the piling up of injuries that really worries me about the Suns' ability to stay in the playoff hunt with 14 of their last 22 games on the road, including 4 of their last 5. When the playoffs look to be decided by 1 or 2 games when it's all said and done, the Suns are playing with a short deck.
Hopefully, Miles Plumlee's knee strain is short term. He wasn't on the injured list until an hour before tipoff on Tuesday night. After the game, coach Hornacek said he's been experiencing soreness and swelling in the knee for a few games now. He hopes a couple of days of rest will be enough to get Plumlee healthy again.
Hopefully, Eric Bledsoe's rehab will take that next step onto the active roster soon. Despite some twitter ravings on Tuesday, Bledsoe has NOT had any pain in this surgically repaired knee while upping his rehab to 5-on-5 scrimmaging on Saturday and Monday so far. Bledsoe's body is sore just from playing hard in practice, and that's a good thing.
Leandro Barbosa won't be back any time soon, having broken his wrist on a first-half play and electing to heal it without surgery. There is no timetable for his return, but the regular season only has 5 weeks left. It's possible Barbosa could return for the playoffs, if there are any to play, but that's completely unknown at this time.
And all this doesn't touch on Goran Dragic wearing down. He mentioned to Slovenian reporters recently that his ankle is going to bother him the rest of the season, and that he's exhausted.
Last night, he told me that he is just really tired, but was more frustrated with missing a couple of easy midrange shots in the second half that might have tipped the scales back in the Suns favor. He's a competitor. With a badly turned ankle, he scored 40. Last night, despite Chris Paul all over him, he put up 14 points, 9 assists and 5 rebounds while holding Paul to 14 points on the other end.
Still, you've got to hope that Dragic can sustain this level of play the rest of the season. 22 games isn't much, but when you're on fumes it's an eternity.
Fully healthy, the Suns went 16-8 this season before the turn of the year.
Since Bledsoe went down, the Suns are 16-14. Treading water, but gaining little ground.
Combine Bledsoe's loss with another injury, the Suns can't close out games. They went 0-3 over the past week+ with missing a second starter. Dragic missed the 4th against Minny, and then the whole Utah game. Now Plumlee missed the Clippers game. The Suns couldn't do the job without them.
"That’s a part of the game, injuries," a tired Dragic said after the Clippers loss. "I wish them all a quick recovery, you know we need everyone here.
"We have 22 games left so we have to play hard and try to make a lot of wins and try to push for the playoff seed. In the end, if you don’t make the playoffs nobody is going to talk about us. We just have to keep our heads up and try to be together and the wins are going to come."
Coming up, the Suns have 3 extremely difficult games just in the next week: home against OKC, and then on the road against Golden State and the Clippers.
“That’s it man, there’s no hiding from it," P.J. Tucker (18 points, 10 rebounds) said. "We have to step up right now. Good teams are winning big games right now and if we want to be one of those teams we have to win games. We have to step up and win these games.
"If we want to take the attention of being a playoff team, being in contention to be in the playoffs, then we need to step up and win these games. There’s no hiding or running away from that we have to win some games.”
If the Suns can't win 2 out of 3, the will likely drop into the lottery and will spend the rest of the season trying to dig their way back while playing out the string mainly on the road.