At this point of the season one year ago, the Phoenix Suns were nine games over .500 and riding a resurgent wave that started with a win over the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 28.
After finishing as strong as anyone after the All-Star break, the Suns nabbed a surprising three seed en route to the Western Conference Finals.
After losing to the Mavericks on Thursday night, the 2010-11 Suns find themselves in a very different position. They’re even at .500, don’t own a playoff spot and battle inconsistency. But even with a mountain to climb after the break, the Suns remain confident about the prospects of their season.
“I believe in this team,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said after Thursday’s 112-106 loss. “We will come back after the All-Star break and we will play good basketball and we will find a way to make a run and get in the playoffs, and yes, we want to make the playoffs.”
As the league’s best congregate in Los Angeles for the weekend, the Suns sit 2 1/2 games out of the eighth playoff spot in the West, chasing Memphis and Utah with Golden State not far behind.
With just 28 games left and so much competition for the final few playoff spots, there is little room for error and the Suns will have to beat the teams they are supposed to, and also beat better teams.
The Suns have won six of their last eight games against teams above .500, but have gone just 5-4 against losing teams over their last 15 games.
“We’re inconsistent,” Gentry said. “I think that’s the thing that will hurt us most, but I think the effort is there night in and night out. I think we have guys that are not quitters.”
Considering the highs and lows the Suns have seen thus far, it’s an accomplishment that they remain in position to make the playoffs at all. Many teams, faced with a revamped roster after losing an All-Star mainstay (Amare Stoudemire) and numerous demoralizing losses, would have folded and accepted a lottery-bound season.
“It’s been a real trying season so far,” Gentry said. “We’ve kind of changed our team twice, and now I think these guys are feeling good about themselves. We believe that we’re a good enough team that we can play ourselves into the playoffs.”
From player to player, that attitude doesn’t change. Everyone believes the Suns are good enough to earn a playoff spot in the final stretch. Though they’d undoubtedly love to have the nine-game cushion they had a year ago, the Suns still consider themselves contenders at 27-27.
“We’re still right there in the thick of things,” forwardsaid. “I think it’s going to come down to the last week or the last game, teams jockeying for position. We’ve just got to come back and hit the ground running.”
Though most of the team will be taking some sort of vacation while the All-Star festivities take place, few consider it a true break. While most said they would take the opportunity to relax and escape the game a bit, no one shared plans to take basketball off their mind.
“I’ll be thinking about the team,” Gentry said. “It doesn’t matter where I am or what I do, I’ll be thinking about the team and how we can get better.”
Of the Suns’ 28 remaining games, 15 come against teams currently above .500 and 16 are away from US Airways Center. After opening at home against Atlanta, the Suns face a six-game road trip that includes stops in Boston and Oklahoma City.
The team is well aware of the challenge ahead, but daunting as it may seem, it has presented the Suns with a clear picture of what they must do to reach their goal.
“We’re just going to try to regroup and come back and go for broke,” point guardsaid. “We’ve got nothing to lose now. We got ourselves to .500 and we’ve got 28 games left and we’ll see how many of those we can win.”