The Suns have had this day marked, circled and starred on their schedules ever since the Mavs stole a March 10 win in Phoenix to go up five games (and two days later six games). Since then the Suns have been playing with the sole goal of making this game matter.
Having cut the lead in half to three in that time, this game doesn’t just matters, it’s the season.
Or if you asked Grant Hill, it’s like the World Cup and Match Play all rolled into one.
Yes, it still sounds terribly strange that experienced vets like Nash, Shaq and Hill are making such a big deal out of just trying to squeak in as the eighth seed in the West, but that’s what has become of the 2008-2009 Phoenix Suns.
As it is, Sunday’s showdown is an elimination game, the difference between the Suns using the final five games to evaluate Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez and making a mad dash for a playoff spot.
Here’s the situation straight up: if the Suns lose they’re down four games with five to play without the tiebreaker, which means they would have to win every game and Dallas would have to lose every game to make the playoffs. In other words, they’d be all but eliminated.
But if Phoenix wins this game, the lead is two with five to play and the Suns would win the conference record tiebreaker.
That would make the battle for eighth almost a 50-50 proposition because of a schedule that has Phoenix playing a game at New Orleans and four contests against sub.-500 teams while the Mavs face the Hornets twice, Utah and Houston.
The Suns own a .359 winning percentage against winning teams and a .757 winning percentage against losing teams, whereas Dallas is at .405 against winning teams and .769 against losing teams.
Before any Phoenix fans get too carried away, though, the Suns have won just two games in 10 tries on the road under interim head coach Alvin Gentry, and those were against the Clippers and Golden State. Aside from their victory in San Antonio to start the season, the Suns’ Jan. 25 victory in Atlanta marks their only road win against a winning team.
So even if the Suns somehow beat Dallas, winning the next three on the road (or at least two of them) is certainly no foregone conclusion, even against a favorable schedule.
The Suns’ biggest key to victory will involve making sure Dirk Nowitzki doesn’t take over the game. Dirk will get his points, and that’s OK, but he can’t dominate like he did in the second half back on March 10.
Dirk torched the Suns for 23 points on 9-for-14 in that second half as 6-foot-7 forward Matt Barnes and anyone else the Suns threw on him had no chance against the 7-foot sharpshooter. The Mavs consistently fed him the ball around the free-throw line, and at that point the undersized Suns were at his mercy.
Gentry and staff must find a way to make Dirk work tougher for his points, or else the Suns’ current 8-3 run will go for naught.
Mavs forward Josh Howard will likely play after missing the previous contest in Phoenix and 10 other games with an ankle injury that will require offseason surgery, according to The Dallas Morning News, but Howard won’t be at 100 percent the rest of the year.
The Suns, meanwhile, will be at as full strength as they’re going to get without Amare after Leandro Barbosa returned from his knee injury on Friday and scored a very LB-like 15 points in 15 minutes.
So it’s on.
It’s not Suns-Mavericks like it used to be, like in 2006 when the winner earned a trip to the Finals.
But this super extreme, win or go home, World Cup, Match Play, do or die showdown between Phoenix and Dallas will go a long way toward determining if this strange Suns season still has a chance of ending in the playoffs.
“We still have to take care of business and it’s going to be an important game at (Dallas’) place,” Shaq told Suns.com. “We know what we have to do, we just have to go out and do it.”