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Suns will have to rely on defense to close out the season strong

Plus, a West playoff seeding update

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

As I wrote the other day, the Phoenix Suns only had to go 8-8 in the final 16 games to reasonably hold onto the 4th seed come playoff time, and that a nice 12-4 finish might help them climb the ladder to an ever higher seed.

What a difference a day makes.

Coming into Saturday, the Suns had a 3+ game lead on the 5th and 6th seeds and only a 2.5 game deficit on the 2nd and 3rd seeds. Unfortunately, the Suns were the only team among them to lose a game on Saturday while the Memphis Grizzlies (2nd), Sacramento Kings (3rd), Los Angeles Clippers (5th) and Golden State Warriors (6th) all won. Now the Suns are closer to 5th than they are to 3rd.

Now, the Suns are 3.5 games (3 wins, 4 losses) behind the 2nd/3rd place teams and just a 2-game lead (1 win, 3 losses) ahead of the Clippers.

Can they climb?

It was only one loss, but that’s less likely now.

The Kings are now 8-1 since the All-Star break, including the win over the Suns last night, and showing no signs of slowing down. The Suns would need win a ton of games while the Kings to barely scratch .500 the rest of the way to overtake them. For example, if the Suns somehow went 12-3 in their final 15 games, the Kings would have to go 9-7 to drop into a tie and lose the seed (Suns almost certainly have the tiebreaker on division records, and can finish no worse than 2-2 head-to-head).

What about the Grizzlies, who have lost three rotation players recently? They could slide, big time. Except they’ve won two straight, with easy home wins over the road-awful Warriors and Luka-less-Kyrie-less Mavericks. The Grizzlies schedule one of the easiest remaining among all 30 teams. To overtake them, the Suns need not only 3 more wins than the Grizzlies from here on out but would have to win their final matchup of the season in Memphis as part of that.

Here’s your best chance: Grizzlies and Kings have the same record right now, so the same scenario applies. The Suns need 3 more wins than the Grizzlies from here on out. The Grizzlies going 9-7 or worse the rest of the way is much more likely than the Kings. They are only 8-13 since January 20, and won’t have Steven Adams or Brandon Clarke the rest of the way, not to mention Ja Morant being ‘away from the team’ for an indefinite period of time.

Can they drop?

The Suns have already clinched the tiebreaker over the Clippers for a higher playoff seed if they finish tied after 82 games, meaning the Clippers still have to finish the season with 4 fewer losses than the Suns.

The Clippers are on pace to finish the season 7-6 in their final 13 games. How do I come to that number? They are 36-33 on the season, including only 3-5 since the All-Star break with a healthy team. The chances of them winning more than 7 of their last 13 games are slim.

How can the Suns lose 4th place to the Clippers? They’d have to 6-9 while the Clippers somehow go 8-5. Neither of those is likely to happen.

How about just stay the same?

Let’s lower the bar for now, and talk about just staying in 4th place and getting ready to face the Clippers or Warriors in the first round, with home court advantage.

As long as the Suns go 6-9 or better the rest of the way, they likely keep the 4th seed. But it’s going to take better defense than what they showed against the Kings on Saturday.

They gave up 128 points to the Kings, including 35 threes (43% makes) and 37 free throws (84% makes).

“Offensively, they score with the best of them,” head coach Monty Williams said. “But we had so many ‘my bads’ and blown coverages tonight.”

Yes, the Kings have the league’s No. 1 offense by a good margin but the Suns 5th-ranked defense had a really bad night, especially among the bench guys.

“I didn’t think we played with the sharpness and gameplan discipline that it takes to play against a team that’s hungry, a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs in a long time and they’re chasing something,” Williams said after the game.

The Kings bench had quite the night, scoring 65 points on the Suns on 20-33 shooting with 14-15 free throws. Phew. They are generally mid-pack on bench scoring, averaging 37 a game.

“That is unacceptable,” Williams said of allowing that kind of night to the Kings bench. “Our bench came into tonight and the gameplan was not there from the jump.”

Cameron Payne committed 3 fouls in 7 minutes. T.J. Warren topped him, committing 3 fouls in 4 minutes. In all, the bench committed more fouls (14) and than they made field goals (13).

The big takeaway from this game is that they cannot let a team get one over on them at home, and cannot let the foul calls get into their heads to the point they lose focus.

The Suns HAVE to win on defense and they have to have a comfortable lead come late-game, because the Chris Paul/Devin Booker/Deandre Ayton offense has become very predictable in crunch time. You can take all three of them out of the late-game offense by trapping up high and sinking into the paint on the short roll pass, forcing tertiary players to make threes. On Saturday, the Suns made only 5 of 15 corner threes. Not nearly good enough.

So it comes down to the defense, which has been good (still 6th overall, after last night’s debacle) and needs to get even better over the final stretch. Terrence Ross, Cameron Payne and T.J. Warren all need to pull their weight defensively. Isn’t it scary that I want to write the words ‘I wish Landry Shamet was healthy’?

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