PHOENIX — There is a lot of talk about “must-win games” at this point of an NBA season.
The reality is until you get to April, it’s doubtful that your season will actually end if you don’t pull through with a victory. The only true must-win games are elimination games.
With that being said, the Suns need to treat tonight’s ESPN-televised tilt against Portland as a must-win game after falling flat against Portland at home before the break after winning five in a row.
Here’s the tale the standings paint entering tonight: the Suns have ripped off a 17-5 run yet they only have 1 1/2 games of cushion over No. 8 Portland. Obviously a loss tonight could put them within a 1/2 game of eighth without the tiebreaker pending what San Antonio does today, and staring at the Lakers in the first round would be a worst-case scenario for Phoenix.
On the flip side, a win puts the Suns 2 1/2 up on eighth and three up in the loss column, and with six straight games coming up against losing teams they would have to feel moderately good about not slipping to the No. 8 seed.
Phoenix also enters play tonight just 1 1/2 games out of fourth, and after Oklahoma City lost to Indiana early Sunday, the Suns hold sole possession of fifth place. For now.
“We have to try to keep pace with those teams, and the only way you can do it is win,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “As I said to our guys and I truly believe this is that we still control our own destiny. If we take care of business and win games like we’re supposed to then we’ll end up being in the position that we’re supposed to. We won’t have to look around and ask for help or anything like that. That’s a good feeling. We can help ourselves right now.”
And that’s what the Suns must do: finish off their long homestand 5-2 and hit the road thinking more about gunning down Utah for the No. 4 spot than falling behind Portland and dropping to No. 8.
Phoenix enters this game rolling having won three in a row by an average of 20.7 ppg. The Suns are averaging 127.3 in that stretch and have shot 55.5 percent from the field in this time.
Much of that has to do with Amare Stoudemire, whose 28.0 ppg average since the break trails only LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Not bad company there. STAT has scored at least 25 in seven straight games, tied with Durantula for the best current streak in the league.
Amare is coming off one of his better game ever, a 44-point explosion on 16 shots that according to The Arizona Republic was the fewest shots he’s ever taken in a 40-point game (he has 15 in his career) as well as the fewest for any player who has gone for 44 in the last four seasons.
STAT was so ruthlessly efficient that he became the first player in the shot-clock era to drill at least 85 percent of his shots from the field and the foul line in the same game (with a minimum of 15 attempts in each category), according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Amare shot 87.5 percent from the field (14-of-16) and 88.9 percent from the line (16-for-18).
The Blazers, who won Friday over the Wizards despite their worst shooting percentage in a victory in team history (32.1 percent), enter this one hot as well having won five in a row and 10 of 12 since Nicolas Batum was inserted into the starting lineup on Feb. 23.
However, the winning streak has largely been due to Portland taking advantage of an easy schedule. The East No. 8 seed Toronto, who they beat twice, is the only playoff team the Blazers took down, and Memphis is the only team over .500 they beat during this run.
Still, the Blazers have also beaten Phoenix four times in a row, including both meetings this season, after losing 11 straight previously. That marks Portland’s longest winning streak in the series since 1999; the Blazers have not won five straight in the series since 1987-88.
Portland is also 5-7 (.417) on the road against teams with a .600-plus winning percentage, better than all West teams except the top three of Los Angeles, Denver and Dallas. The league winning percentage in such games is .246.
The Suns of course won’t have to deal with Steve Blake tonight, as the former Portland guard who put up season highs in points (20) and assists (12) in their last meeting has since been shipped to the Clippers. But unlike in that listless performance, Brandon Roy is back from injury, Marcus Camby has been added in the Blake deal and the Blazers come into this one scorching after entering the last meeting coming off a tough loss the night before.
This one figures to be an intense clash between two hot teams that desperately need this game for playoff positioning purposes.
Is it a must win?
The Suns’ season won’t be over if they lose, but in terms of playoff positioning it really is a must win.
In his Weekend Dime on NBA Jam (a must read), ESPN’s Marc Stein reports that a source insists that D-Wade and Amare are closer than advertised and that Miami is STAT’s first choice if he decides to leave the Suns. … Gentry is 3-13 (.188) against the Blazers as a head coach, his lowest winning percentage against any NBA team. … The Suns have a plus 3.9 rebound differential since Robin Lopez became a starter after having a negative differential before. They started 24-17 and are 19-9 since the lineup change. … Steve Nash has only averaged 13.4 and 8.8 since against Portland since returning to the Suns in 2004, compared to 16.8 and 10.8 overall. … Portland plays slower than any NBA team, averaging 90.2 possessions per game. The Suns are the fourth-fastest team, averaging 98.1 possessions per contest.