The strange, long NBA season presents opportunities and challenges simply by nature of where games are played. Playing in the West (and the Pacific Division), the Suns always have one of the more difficult schedules in the NBA. This year is no exception.
To make matters worse, the Suns have not been a consistently good home team all season, meaning the supposed advantage of playing at Talking Stick Resort Arena has not done them any favors. An 11-18 home record makes the Suns the third-worst home team in the West, a huge reason they are behind in the standings despite the eighth-best average point differential in the conference at minus-0.9.
This all sets the stage for what will be a season-defining homestand starting Wednesday against the Clippers. At 24-34, the Suns are now 4.5 games behind Memphis for the final playoff spot in the West, and they face four playoff teams including the Clippers during this six-game homestand.
Here’s where things stand between the Suns and their playoff competitors right now:
As we all know, to catch Memphis, the teams below them will need to be considerably better than the Grizzlies the rest of the way. It’s not enough to tread water and hope the Grizzlies lose, even though Memphis has the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA and just lost Jaren Jackson Jr. for at least two weeks. With just 25 games or so left, overtaking Memphis will require a huge tear for one team and a precipitous drop-off for the Grizzlies.
After this six-game stretch, the Suns will have just six home games remaining over the final month of the season. That means this is likely their best chance to string together victories in the comfort of the Valley and make a real run at the playoffs.
Here’s what the Suns are looking at in terms of competition:
More on the Clippers tomorrow, but their offense has been pretty poor since before the All-Star break. They’re integrating Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson, though they did just get Patrick Beverley back from injury.
After that, two winnable games against Detroit and Golden State. We just watched the Suns gobble up the Warriors at home before the All-Star. The only thing that would change that outcome is an unforeseen Dragan Bender revenge game. While the Pistons beat Phoenix in their building a few weeks back, the Suns were decimated by injuries in that game, and both of the players who won that game for the Pistons (Jackson and Andre Drummond) are gone now.
The final three games are where things get serious. The Suns have played Portland close all year, and pulled together a big win over the Trail Blazers in January that was their first victory over the team in years. Though Damian Lillard will likely be back in the lineup by that point, it’s a winnable game.
To beat Toronto or Milwaukee, the Suns will have to keep playing like they did against Utah: Create turnovers, push the pace, make open shots, and limit mistakes. Against the Jazz, Mavericks, Celtics and others the past few weeks, we’ve seen the Suns compete with the best teams in the NBA when they play nearly perfect basketball. It’s just been hard for them to do so consistently.
A huge part of the Suns’ recent success (they’re ninth in net rating over the past two weeks) is their small starting lineup. Rarely during Devin Booker’s career have the Suns entered games with a legitimate advantage in any area, but especially to start the second half lately, the Suns’ starting lineup is blitzing opponents.
Good Morning— Cody James Hunt (@co_dhunt) February 25, 2020
The Suns starting lineup has the best Net Rating of any lineup in the NBA that has played at least 200 minutes.
They have a 121.6 O-Rating and a 101.4 D-Rating for an enormous +20.2.
Since settling with this starting lineup, they've beat DAL, HOU, and UTA. pic.twitter.com/8lXuzCW8bz
In the past 12 games since the Suns turned to this starting lineup, their third-quarter net rating is plus-17.8. The Suns won each third quarter during their recent road trip, outscoring teams by an average of 11 points. It nearly allowed them back into the Raptors game and spurred big victories in Chicago and Utah.
During these 12 games, Deandre Ayton is averaging 21.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game and besides the two he missed with an ankle sprain, has basically been a big positive in every contest. That has to keep up.
The bench is also healthy for the first time in months, and the Suns got 43 points from their reserves while beating Utah on Monday night. If they get anything nearing that sort of production from Dario Saric, Aron Baynes, Cameron Johnson and Co. over the next six games, a huge problem for the Suns all season at the very least becomes a neutral.
If the Suns are actually going to exit the homestand on track to stay in the playoff race in March, they need to go at least 4-2. Assuming they can take care of business against the inferior Pistons, Warriors and Trail Blazers, they simply need to beat one of the Clippers, Raptors and Bucks. That means one game in which they muster whatever they found in themselves to take down the Jazz and Celtics in the past month.
Get lucky or play great against one or two of the playoff teams who come into Talking Stick Resort Arena, and the Suns are in business.