When you are facing better opponents in 15 of your last 19 games, every single night is a tough night. Even facing the Sacramento Kings is tough, considering their huge matchup problem with the Suns roster: DeMarcus Cousins.
"They don't really have anybody to guard Cuz (Cousins) out there," Kings forward Rudy Gay said afterward. "He's a big guy and he's hard to guard. They send the whole team at him and he's been successful so yeah, I think this is a good matchup for us."
DeMarcus Cousins made 11 of 19 shots for 24 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, but it was his three assists and heady play all night when getting double and triple teamed that opened for the floor for the rest of the guys.
The Kings have beaten the Suns three out of four times this season, and have done no worse than split the season series with the Suns for four straight seasons.
"We always struggle with them," Suns forward Marcus Morris said.
Illness and ankles
It didn't help that their best player, Eric Bledsoe, was battling the stomach flu and would not have played if the game weren't so important.
"Yeah he [Bledsoe]'s got a stomach flu," coach Hornacek said. "And Brandon Knight not being able to play...it might've been a night where maybe he didn't play. You can kind of tell, he didn't have the same energy that he's had the last four or five games."
Brandon Knight tested the ankle before the game, and he and the team training staff decided he wasn't ready. Behind Knight and Bledsoe, the Suns only playmakers are 20 year old Archie Goodwin and 10-day contract A.J. Price, so yeah Bledsoe had to play.
It was obvious that Bledsoe was struggling though. He had two quick turnovers in the first quarter and contributed to a couple more when he didn't get to his spot to receive a kick-out pass quickly enough. He also sagged badly off of Kings point guard Ray McCallum, hoping McCallum would miss his shots. But instead, McCallum not only made his open shots but he drove past Bledsoe with ease as well.
Hornacek pulled Bledsoe for Goodwin after only four minutes of play. But it was obvious the Suns had no one running the point effectively all night long. They had only 16 assists on 38 made baskets.
The Suns players weren't buying the excuse though.
"I'm a little weak right now," Bledsoe said. "But when you step on the court, all excuses go out the window. Nobody cares if you're sick."
"I know that Mike (Michael Jordan) had the flu and he still had 50," Marcus Morris said. "So I mean, we're fighting for a playoff spot, so he came out there and still played and still competed."
Lack of energy
The game wasn't lost just because Bledsoe was sick. No one on the team played with the urgency and efficiency needed to win the game. All game, they were kicking loose balls out of bounds, away from their own probing hands. They were bouncing rebounds off their arms. The Kings got to every 50-50 ball just a little faster than the Suns.
The Suns gave up 31 first-quarter points at home to a Kings team with only 9 road wins on the year, on the second night of a back-to-back and who had lost their last 5 straight games like that.
"You can't let a team get going in the first quarter," Hornacek said. "We gave them 31 points to start the game. If a team scores 31, we know how it is when we're on the road and we score 30 points in the first quarter, now you feel confident that you can score on the team and that's what happened. We never really got to stop them."
In addition to McCallum and Cousins, the Kings were boosted in a big way by their young shooting guards. Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas combined to shoot 10-for-16 with 4-for-8 three pointers. Three of those three-pointers came at crucial times late in the game to keep the Kings lead comfortable when the Suns were trying to mount a surge.
And this was the "easy" game on the Suns schedule over the last month. Ugh.
Tough is as tough does
The Phoenix Suns right now are in the middle of a gauntlet schedule that no iteration of the 2014-15 Suns has looked able to overcome.
Before the All-Star break, with Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas and the league's 5th ranked offense in tow, the Suns reached a high-water mark of 28-20 on the back of one of the league's easiest schedules despite being over-loaded with road games. But the Suns were only 5-10 against the other seven West playoff seeds to that point.
That same offense-first lineup closed out their first-half schedule by losing 5 out of 6 games against the same formula the Suns are facing now - four West playoff teams, plus Utah and Sacramento - to finish 29-25 at the break and the Trade Deadline.
Since the deadline and all the roster changes, the Suns have been up and down. Their record in the second half is now 9-9, but they are an impressive 4-2 against the West playoff teams.
The team now relies on their defense to win games (9th in points per possession allowed; 5th in rebound rate since the break), while their offense has sputtered to a near halt (24th in points per possession scored; 23rd in True Shooting % since the break).
Now they have all 10 remaining games against tough opponents. Nine are against winning teams (they are now 14-21 against any teams - East or West - with winning records), with the other against the surging Utah Jazz.
You could even say the Jazz are a winning team, since they've been one of the better West teams with Rudy Gobert in the starting lineup. Even without Gobert in the mix, the Jazz have always been a tough matchup for the Suns. The Jazz drummed the Suns early in the year, and power forward Derrick Favors has been a beast they cannot contain.
Will we see the Suns team that's gone 4-2 against winning West teams since the break?
Or will the team's lack of offensive firepower and inconsistent effort level doom the team to a sputtering finish?
Make no mistake. This IS the Suns playoff run. From here on out, there's not one easy opponent.
I can't wait to see it unfold.