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Phoenix Suns youth movement crashes headlong into toughest schedule in the West

The Suns get to face the league's toughest closing schedule as they try to incorporate new player after new player into their rotation.

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past year, the Phoenix Suns have lost their veteran on-court leadership that helped them surprise the league with a 48-34 record, including an 11-3 run from March 14 to April 9 that vaulted them into 7th place with a week left in the season before the 1-3 collapse.

This year, the Suns have to face a much tougher season-finishing schedule that includes 14 of their last 18 opponents with winning records.

A magical season-ending run this year seems like a pipe dream.

Loss of vets

The Suns starting lineup last year included two players with long-"ish" term NBA experience - Channing Frye (7 years) and Goran Dragic (5 years) - who could help the team stay on an even keel from game to game and provide a consistent mental focus.

Gone now are those two veterans. The Suns starting lineup now boasts only one player over 25 years old (P.J. Tucker) and none with more than four years of NBA experience.

So it's not surprising that, while the current Suns team should be locked in every night at this point in the season, they find themselves still riding that roller coaster of mental preparation. Twice in the past week, the Suns have barely scored against two of the league's elite teams (San Antonio, Cleveland) and failed to come out with fire against three middling-to-bad teams.

That screams of lack of veteran leadership. Their only "old" player, P.J. Tucker, is such a great example of leadership that he missed the team bus on Friday and lost his starting job as a result. When this happened earlier in the season to P.J., the Suns suspended him one game as punishment. This time, he only missed a quarter of play as coach Hornacek couldn't stand to see the team's lagging effort level without him.

The rotation is in flux, as well. Newly acquired Brandon Knight and Brandan Wright are trying to get acclimated, while a whack-a-mole 9+-man rotation is trying to find some consistency. Coach Hornacek is rotating in long-time veterans Gerald Green and Marcus Thornton along with the under-ripe kids Archie Goodwin and T.J. Warren as he struggles on a nightly basis to win games. Make no mistake: Jeff Hornacek wants to win games. He's too competitive to throw in the towel mid-game just to get some run for the kids. He'll do it, but not all the time.

Killer schedule

On top of that, the Suns closing schedule this year is much more difficult than last year.

That 11-3 surge last year from mid-March to early April when Bledsoe returned from injury pitted the Suns against only six winning teams (they went 4-2 against those teams) out of 14 games. Dragic turned his ankle one time too many in that 14th game, setting up the Suns for a disappointing 3-game losing streak against their immediate playoff competition that final weekend.

This year, the Suns easy-schedule chances have come and gone, leaving them with only a 33-31 record and a 10th place spot in the West to show for it.

Now, the Suns have to face a closing schedule that, in terms of opponent winning percentage, is the toughest in the entire NBA.

They face the league-best Warriors and Hawks twice each, plus two games each against the above-.500 Pelicans, Mavericks and Blazers. That's 10 games against five surging teams. And don't forget the single games against the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers and Rockets. All are above .500 on the season.

The Suns record against winning opponents this year is 12-20.

Against the top 9 in the West, the Suns are 6-16.

The good news is that 11 of those last 18 are at home, where the Suns are sure to be pumped up by the "best fans in the NBA".