PHOENIX – In a season of missed opportunities, bad luck and injuries, it would be easy to pick out any handful of games as the reason the Suns cleaned their lockers out on Thursday instead of beginning preparations for the playoffs.
There was Roger Mason stealing Christmas, Danny Granger doing the same a few weeks later with less than a second left and countless other games in which the Suns failed to execute down the stretch on the defensive end, but interim head coach Alvin Gentry keeps coming back to a Saturday night in Utah.
Back in that March 28 game, the Suns trailed by 21 early in the second half only to go on a tear and find themselves up seven with two minutes left and later two with 25 seconds remaining, but a botched inbounds play eventually led to a Utah overtime victory.
“I’m still trying to figure out how we lost that game, and to me I think if we win that game we probably win the game in Sacramento and we put ourselves in good shape,” Gentry said in hindsight.
Forgetting the fact that there would not have been a negative carryover effect the next night in Sacramento and the fact the Suns would have actually tried to beat Memphis last weekend, Phoenix and Utah would have tied with identical 47-35 marks had the Suns pulled out that victory and Phoenix would be heading to Los Angeles today due to a tiebreaker victory.
As it is the Suns became the second-best team since the 16-team playoff format was adopted in 1983-84 to miss the playoffs, trailing only last year’s Warriors who won 48 times yet came in ninth.
Phoenix finished 17 games ahead of Golden State this season, the next closest West “contender,” yet only eight games separated the Suns from the second-seeded Nuggets.
If Phoenix played in the East, the Suns would be the No. 5 seed, a game behind the fourth-seeded Hawks and three games better than No. 5 Miami.
“If we were in the other conference we’d be having a different conversation right now,” Shaq said. “It’s a tough conference, we let a lot of games slip away.”
Added general manager Steve Kerr, “Ninety percent of the time in the NBA that’s good enough to make the playoffs.”
This season was a mess from the start, when the Suns spent the first three and a half months unhappy playing in a Terry Porter system that did not fit their strengths, losing to bad teams at an alarming frequency and not enjoying basketball like past Phoenix teams did.
There was the trade in which Boris Diaw and Raja Bell were dealt for Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley, and then a few months later the Suns saw Amare go down for the season after eye surgery with no power forward on hand to replace him. The Suns used Matt Barnes in that role and returned to small ball, but they got pounded in the post by every good four man the rest of the year.
Kerr conceded that Diaw would have been helpful without Amare, but he also said that Diaw’s $9 million a year price tag was too expensive for an “insurance policy” who wasn’t getting $9 million a year minutes at the time.
“It was a very disappointing year for us,” said. “We didn’t expect to have so many troubles and so many different things happen to us. We’ll learn from it and just move forward and hopefully be better for it.”
Added Shaq, “A lot of strange things happened to us this year, so we were never really on track. We got on track a few times, but the things that we weren’t accustomed to just bit us every now and then.”
The Suns rebounded nicely after the team fired Porter and brought in Gentry after the All-Star break, particularly at home and against bad teams.
Phoenix ran off a 16-3 home run to end the year – with those losses to Boston, Cleveland and Dallas – including the final nine in a row. The Suns also went 11-2 against bad teams under Gentry, but they struggled profusely against the good teams while missing Amare and later Leandro Barbosa for a few weeks.
There were some positive aspects to the season, such as the Suns’ trio of aging stars staying relatively healthy all season aside from a minor Nash ankle injury.
For the 10th time in his career Shaq led the league in shooting percentage by nailing 60.9 percent of his shots while setting a career high in that department at the age of 37. Also, Nash enjoyed his record-breaking third 50-40-90 season andplayed all 82 for the first time ever.
As a team the Suns led the league in offensive efficiency for the fifth year in a row (111.2 points per 100 possessions) and boasted a whopping seven players in double figures.
But none of that mattered because that whole defense thing reared its ugly head once more, as the Suns ranked 25th in defensive efficiency (108.5 per 100).
While Mike D’Antoni always prided his Phoenix teams on coming up with the key stops when they need to, this Suns team was at its worst in such situations.
During a six-game losing streak in March that effectively ended their season, the Suns night in and night out failed to stop anybody down the stretch and paid the price by losing to six good teams.
“We don’t have any thoughts that we’re all of a sudden going to become Boston or the Spurs, but we have to be able to make key stops at the right times during games,” Kerr said. “We lost a ton of close games, and you win close games in this league by making stops.”
To Nash, the silver lining to this whole missing the playoff thing – regardless of how unfair it is that the Suns won seven more games than Detroit and beat the Pistons twice yet they are the team headed to Cleveland today – is that if the Suns squeezed into the playoffs there could have been a feeling amongst the organization that things aren’t so bad.
Instead, a team that has entered the playoffs with a legitimate shot at a championship four years running (OK, maybe not last year) will be staying home for the playoffs and pondering what each individual needs to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again next year.
“I just don’t think we deserved it,” Nash said. “We didn’t play well enough, and it wasn’t meant to be for us. I don’t think we necessarily did what it took to get there, so I guess all I can say about that is maybe it’s better we didn’t make it and gloss over some of our deficiencies and some of the improvements we need to make. ”
Suns fans can play the what if game all day.
What if Porter never tried to change the Suns’ offense?
What if the Suns actually gave his system a fair shake and tried to play a sliver of defense?
What if Amare never got hurt?
What if the Suns ever got a stop down the stretch?
What if they beat Utah?
That doesn’t change the fact that the Suns didn’t play consistent playoff basketball over the course of a strange 82-game season.
And that’s why Nash, Shaq, Hill and the rest of the Suns will be doing the same thing as you and I over the course of the 2009 playoffs.