PHOENIX — It seems like just yesterday we were worrying about a flailing Suns team and the possibility of falling out of the playoff picture.
On Jan. 26, the Suns fell to their lowest point of the season, just five games over .500 at 26-21. It looked like the Suns could be left out of the uncomfortably close Western Conference playoff race at that point.
But that was the turning point. The Suns are 14-4 since (sounds awfully familiar to that 14-3 start, huh?). Amare Stoudemire turned it on, the Suns started out-rebounding opponents and even with a slew of injuries, the Suns have played their best basketball of the season.
ESPN analyst John Hollinger’s 2010 NBA Playoff Odds give the Suns a 99.8 percent chance of plaing beyond 82. Barring a collapse of epic proportions, it’s safe to say the Suns will fight for the chance to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in the air.
With 17 games remaining, the Suns will now focus on trying to land a desirable first-round matchup and home-court advantage.
The rest of the Suns’ schedule is relatively favorable, save a few really tough matchups. Eight of the Suns’ remaining games come against playoff teams, and six of those come at home.
The Suns play eight total road games against favorable opponents such as New Jersey, Minnesota, Detroit and Golden State. The Suns have split with Oklahoma City this season and just barely won there last month, so that game could be a challenge, as well as the contest at suddenly surging Milwaukee.
The Suns finish the season in Utah, where they’ve already lost against a Jazz team that also topped them at home. The Jazz are just not a team the Suns match up well with, and they’re a squad Phoenix won’t want to see in the first round of the playoffs. One of the four teams to beat the Suns since the end of January, the Jazz are simply devastating when they’re on their ‘A’ game.
The late March road trip against Eastern Conference teams includes what may be the Suns’ toughest matchup with a non-playoff team.
The Chicago Bulls have fallen out of the playoff picture in the East, but they have won three in a row dating back to last season against the Suns. Derrick Rose has continually gotten the better of Steve Nash since coming to the NBA and Kirk Hinrich has frustrated the two-time MVP on defense.
However, the Bulls have fallen off since their January win in Phoenix and injuries have taken their toll on Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng. Look for the Suns to break the three-game losing streak.
With notoriously difficult matchups scheduled in US Airways Center, the toughest part of the remaining season will likely take place at home. It starts Friday against the Lakers and continues with Utah, Portland, San Antonio, Houston and Denver. It seems strange to say, particularly this season with the Suns a 16-17 road team, that their greatest tests could come at home.
Possibly a greater concern than match ups in the remaining stretch is injuries. These four days off (not including practice) have been very important for the ailing Suns as Nash (back, abdomen), Jason Richardson (back), Goran Dragic (ankle), Leandro Barbosa (wrist) and Channing Frye (shoulder) have all battled injuries ranging from mild to serious.
But Friday’s game should see everyone ready to go (except the suspended Frye). The issue then becomes whether or not the injuries linger. Nash has been trying to shake his ailments for a while now and Barbosa’s wrist has been a season-long issue.
The last big concern is where the Suns land in the final standings. A four or five seed may sound good, but it ultimately means a second-round matchup with the Lakers even if the Suns can get past their first-round opponent (likely Denver, Dallas or Utah).
Despite the lack of home-court advantage, a six seed is likely the most favorable finish for the Suns and would give them the best chance of … well, getting to play the Lakers a little later.
The Suns players and coaches have openly expressed their extreme disinterest in dealing with the Lakers. Friday’s game will be a very interesting look at how this revitalized Suns team matches up with the league’s best.
“I just know that whatever happens in the West is going to go through LA,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said after practice Monday.
With many possibilities still on the table, the Suns will have to keep up their recent high level of play if they want a shot at sneaking through a title window that could be closing.