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Phoenix Suns tough schedule will distract players from trade talk, elbowing for playing time

Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

That was fun. The Suns played 30 of the first 43 games of their schedule against teams not in the Western Conference playoff race and have put together a 25-18 record to place them squarely in 8th place of the 10-team race.

But the schedule hasn't been quite as easy as some would think. More than half those games were on the road and nine of them were on the second night of a back-to-back, but the young Suns overcame some head-scratching losses to cellar-dwellers to match last year's win pace that just might be enough to make the playoffs this time around with a deeper conference.

Most of the Suns' games against the West elite have been on the road so far, which has not been kind. The Suns are 1-8 on the road against the other 9 teams in the West race versus 3-1 at home.

Still, a 25-18 record is something of which to be proud for one of the league's youngest teams and by far the least experienced among the playoff hopefuls.

Foolishness

The Suns have been favored in most of their games so far this season, leaving players more time to think about their individual stats and playing time than the Suns front office would hope.

First, it was two of the Trips - Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas - wondering how the three-guard rotation would work out. Now it's the other guards who are letting the world know they are being squeezed out of minutes. Gerald Green has not spoken to the media (much) in months, but rumblings are that he's not in love with reduced playing time. Archie Goodwin, all of 20 years old, gave the most candid comments though, to SN's Sean Deveney yesterday.

The front line hasn't wanted to be left out of the spotlight, (un)fortunately. Markieff Morris leads the league in technical fouls. Marcus yelled at his coach on national TV. And now Miles Plumlee wants to be traded after Brandan Wright came in to take most of his minutes, according to "sources".

Time to focus on opponents, not playing time

However, now the rubber hits the road, so speak.

And the players will, at least for a while, have no time to fret about who's playing what minutes. It's all about getting wins in games they are not favored to win - something the team has stepped up to face all season long.

"We've been playing better at home lately," Isaiah Thomas said after beating the Lakers last night. "We just got to be focused each and every game, knowing that we're playing against the top teams in the NBA the next few games. We just got to bring it each and every night and be ready."

The Suns are 3-1 at home against the West elite so far, though two of those wins were in the opening two weeks of the season (San Antonio, Golden State). The home wins over Dallas and Toronto were a good one recently, and the ability to close out a hot and desperate LeBron James-led Cavaliers team was a good sign as well.

But it's the next two weeks were we get a strong glimpse at how far this team can go this season:

suns-sked-next-8

In the next eight games, the Suns play the West elite six times while facing the East elite twice. Every one of those opponents has a better record than the Suns' 25-18 this season.

Fortunately, 6 of these 8 are at home in the friendly confines of US Airways Center.

A young team needs support to win close games and the home fans - even the quiet ones in Phoenix - can help a team close out close games. The Phoenix crowd has always been great at the end of tight games.

For the Suns to remain in the playoff picture, a successful run in these eight games would be a great way to start.

Meanwhile, the Suns primary competition for playoff positioning are hitting a soft part of their schedules. The Suns have a 3+ game lead on each, but much of that lead could be gone if the Suns lose most of their next eight games.

Pelicans, 4 back of the Suns, next 8 games:

Pelicans-next-8

Thunder, 3.5 games back, next 8 games:

Thunder-next-8

Each of them has four tough games versus the Suns' eight tough ones.

The Suns will get a bit of a respite after this 8-game gauntlet, as they get to face the Jazz and Kings in the two following games while the Thunder and Pelicans play a home-and-home against each other.

By then, we will know a lot more about the Suns playoff chances this season. And the Suns playoff position will likely determine the Suns decisions at the trade deadline, just a couple of weeks after this gauntlet ends.