The Phoenix Suns just came out of their toughest string of games all season with a 3-5 record. That was eight consecutive opponents who had won 65% or more of their games coming in to face a healthy Suns team fighting to keep their playoff spot.
You could dress up the 3-5 record with asterisks that two of the losses at home were of the last-second variety (Houston, Memphis), arguing that if the ball had just bounced in another direction the Suns could have come out ahead.
But that would just mask an ugly stretch of games where the Suns proved they weren't quite ready for primetime.
If you reach the playoffs, every game will be like this last eight-game gauntlet. There are no Utah Jazzes in the playoffs, no Sacramento Kings. And unless you reach the Finals, there's no Eastern Conference teams either.
In this eight-game gauntlet, the Suns won three and were tied with 10 seconds to go in two more. But the Suns lost the other three games by an ugly 19, 20 and 21 points.
The Suns offense scored just 101.7 points during the stretch (down from 107.2), and gave up 106.7 (up from 104.8). They twice scored a season-low 87 points in blowout losses. That's what happens when your string of opponents defenses ranked 1st, 3rd (twice), 4th, 7th, 11th, 12th and 18th in points per possession allowed, and their offenses ranked 2nd, 3rd, 8th, 10th, 11th (twice), 13th and 15th.
The Suns came in with the league's 5th best offense and 17th best defense. During that stretch, they exhibited the league's 18th best offense and 25th best defense.
Of course every team plays worse against better opponents, but this is not a good sign for the playoff picture.
While seven of the next 11 opponents are worse than the Suns, that's just a short break before it gets tough again. The Suns had better make hay during this 11-game stretch while they can.
If everything breaks right, the Suns could win 9 of these 11 games, but that's guessing the Suns are "due" for wins over Houston and Oklahoma City.
More likely, the Suns will win 7 of the 11, but for now let's go with 9 of 11 just to make my Sunday morning a little better. At that point, the Suns would be 13 games over .500 - a very, very necessary win rate given the final stretch of games.
Final 19 games
Beginning on Saturday, March 7 against the Cavaliers, the Suns face a closing schedule that features a whopping 15 of their last 19 games against the Thunder, Pelicans or teams with better winning percentages than the Suns. Compare that to only 10 of the Thunder's last 19 games against teams better than them. And the Pelicans only face 11 of their last 19 against better teams.
If the Suns can't improve on their win rate against teams ahead of and around them, they will be sending a contingent to New Jersey for the draft lottery ping pong ball show for the 5th consecutive season.
But let's look at the games one by one and see what shakes out.
I've basically got the Suns winning their winnable games and losing 60% of their losable ones, the same rate they exhibited during this 8-game stretch that just ended. By April, the Suns could very reasonably be 43-33 before the stretch run.
That's when I go back to Neverland. You'll notice that I have the Suns finishing the year with a BANG, winning 5 of their last 6 against teams they should have no chance to win 5 of 6 against. I'm basically saying that, by April, the Suns will be ready for the playoffs and will find a way to reverse last April's swoon.
Is that probable? No.
But 48 isn't really needed
I mapped a way for the Suns to reach 48 wins, as improbable as you might think. But will the Suns need 48 wins to make the playoffs? Likely not.
I don't see Oklahoma City (25-25) suddenly finishing the year 23-8 to get to 48 wins. Six of OKC's last nine are against Western playoff teams. And I don't see New Orleans (27-24) finishing with a 21-10 record to get to 48 wins. Six of NOLA's last seven are against Western playoff teams.
44 or 45 wins just might do it for the Suns, which would mean they only need to split those final six games to get in. Is that doable? I'd say so.