The Phoenix Suns are preparing to enter the second act of their regular season.
The first act? It was full of twists and turns, highs and lows, characters entering and exiting the script that is the 2022-23 season. 62 games have passed — we are 76% of the way through the regular season — and we have seen more plot twists than an M. Night Shyamalan movie.
The second act of a screenplay or novel is typically when the confrontation occurs. It’s when the action arises, your protagonist is tested, and you learn what challenge they must overcome.
For the Suns, the confrontation is the last 20 games of the season, as Monty Williams’ staff and players learn to integrate future Hall of Famer Kevin Durant into the fold. They must do so while simultaneously holding tight to their place in the standings. The challenge is the Western Conference.
Updated Western Conference standings with exactly 6 weeks (42 days) left in the regular season.— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) February 27, 2023
We've still got 9 teams within 2 games of each other in the loss column (and 10 within 3 to include the Suns). pic.twitter.com/3YSeMr5O4e
The West is an ever changing battlefield, and Phoenix is walking on quick sand. One false step, one brief losing streak, and you will sink quicker than Artax into the Swamps of Sadness.
There are 20 regular season games left to determine how the second act of the season will ultimately play out.
Per Tankathon, the Suns have the 9th toughest strength of schedule remaining, as the teams that they are scheduled to play have combined for a 51.1% winning percentage. Compare that to other teams who are fighting for the same seeding in the Western Conference:
As teams are fighting to make the postseason, some are playing for seeding while others will be playing for Wembanyama. Alas, we have entered the time of the season in which this matters. Back in act one, it wasn’t that much of a deciding factor. But in act two? It will be noticed.
Let’s explore further what lies ahead for the Suns relative to their schedule. Where does opportunity lie for victory? Are there any scheduled losses? What should we expect from this team – who currently sits in the fourth seed – for the remainder of the season?
Starting with some quick observations:
- Home games: 10
- Away games: 10
- Games vs. Western Conference: 15
- Games vs. Eastern Conference: 5
- Back-to-backs: 3
- Games with 2 days of rest: 5
- Games vs. Pacific Division: 6
- Games vs. teams with a winning record: 9 (1 team is .500)
- Games vs. their competition in Western Conference playoff race (seeds #3 to #11): 10
Now let’s talk about some of the individual teams the Suns will be facing. I have classified teams into three different categories, and seeing as I’ve been referencing movies and their structures to correlate the final 20 for Phoenix, let’s use The Terminator trilogy as inspiration.
Thanks, James Cameron.
These are teams who are complete and are dominating the league, putting on their Ray-Bans, stealing a motorcycle, and terminating those in their way.
Four of the final 20 games are against teams that find themselves competing, not for relevancy, but for a title. This is a category the Suns would probably consider themselves in, but due to their record, they aren’t there yet.
KD can change a lot though. Perhaps his addition is like adding living tissue over endoskeleton.
While the Bucks and 76ers will be highly anticipated games and potential NBA Finals previews, both come on the second night of a back-to-back, and both are on a travel-back-to-Phoenix day. I’m not saying, “scheduled loss”, but it’s not looking like the Suns will be able to put forth their best effort.
It is the two games against the Nuggets that will be the most important. The last time Phoenix played Denver, the Nuggets stomped Phoenix to the tune of 126-97 in mid-January. They beat the Suns on Christmas Day in OT as well, the game in which Devin Booker left with a groin injury in the first five minutes.
The Suns will have a quality barometer test against the Nuggets as they play each other twice in the last six games of the season. Both teams will be tuning up for the playoffs, although the possibility that Denver clinches early could effect the April 6 matchup. If that’s the case, Phoenix could benefit from a Jokic-less Nuggets squad, or at least limited Joker minutes.
These are teams who are like the T-1000 (and the T-800 for that matter); they keep coming and coming at you. They are chasing you down in the standings, clawing on to the back of your police cruiser, and keeping you in a state of suspense.
Desperation is dangerous. The teams in this category are just that.
Some are the “John Connor” teams of the bunch. They are simply trying to survive the season, fighting to make the play in game, and to extend their season. Every loss carries enough weight to crush their resolve.
The Bulls, Timberwolves, Lakers, and Jazz are these teams. The Bulls are up first as Phoenix plays them on Friday, but then the schedule opens up for the Suns as they don’t play a John Connor team until March 22 against the Lakers.
Who will the Lakers be by then? We’re not sure, especially considering the recent LeBron news.
Sources: There's fear Lakers star LeBron James is likely to miss an extended period of time with his right foot injury. James suffered the injury in Sunday's win over Dallas, played through it, and belief is he will be sidelined an indefinite amount.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) February 28, 2023
Thirteen games lie between now and games between the Jazz and Timberwolves. Much akin to the Lakers, they are teams that may know their fate by then. If they are out of it, you may see a roster that is resting it’s stars.
Others are fighting — the Sarah Connor’s, if you will — as they focus on seeding and are hoping to make (or stay in) the top four, thus ensuring home court in the first round. Enter the Kings, Mavericks, and Clippers. While the aren’t as dangerous as the John Connor bunch can be, due to talent and will to fight, they will be tough outs.
The Kings are currently ahead of Phoenix is the standings, and their two games against each other could mold what the postseason seeding looks like. Light the beam? Or light up the Kings? We anxiously await to see how Phoenix performs in these games.
These matchups are sprinkled throughout the remaining schedule and timing doesn’t matter. Like Sarah Connor, they’re always ready for a fight.
In the last 20 games, Phoenix must play half of their games against these Judgement Day teams. These games will have a major impact on the final standings.
Rise of the Machines
These are teams looking to rise again, but next season. Winning doesn’t benefit them, and while you can never assume they are dead, they want to be.
It plays in the Suns’ favor that they play these teams 6 times, but we all know how feisty they can be. Because they don’t feel the pressure of the game, young teams like these occasionally pose the biggest threat. They’re young and fighting for minutes.
Sure, their GM wished they’d lose, but don’t ask that of a competitor.
Of the next 10 games, the Suns play 4 of these teams. The Suns, who are incorporating Kevin Durant into the lineup, may benefit from this.
If you can run off 6 in a row, great. But know that if a fellow Western Conference opponent goes 3-3 during that same time, you’ve only gained 1.5 games on them in the standings. That being said, 1.5 games is plenty of separation in the West.
How many games will the Suns win in their final 20 games?
This poll is closed
These last 20 will be tough. New players, new rotations, and unforeseen obstacles can threaten the Suns chances to get to where they want to go. That’s question number one for Monty Williams: where do you want to be? Who do you want to be? Are you a Terminator? Or are you a Judgement Day team?
Anyone can say they belong in a certain class of competition, but results are what matter.
One thing the Suns have in their corner? Why, there very own ‘War Machine’, TJ Warren. Now if he could only crack the rotation..
Yes, that is TJ’s drop on the Suns JAM Session Podcast. We have one for every player, and when we discuss their performance, we play the drop.
The third act is on the horizon, where we will experience the final chapter of the 2022-23 season. That act is the postseason, where we finally learn the fate for the Suns this season.
“No fate but what we make.”