As the Phoenix Suns prepare to make their post-All-Star break run at a playoff spot, the ValleyoftheSuns staff answers three critical questions that pertain to the rest of the year.
Which Sun most needs to step up in the second half?
Michael Schwartz: Goran Dragic is putting up very similar numbers to last season, but the Suns have not played nearly as well with him on the floor. Last year he ranked behind only Nash in adjusted plus/minus. This year’s he’s last on the team with the Suns losing almost 12 points every 100 possessions with him on the floor as Dragic has failed to ignite the second unit the way he did last year’s bench. The Dragon needs to find a way to become the driving force of the bench mob that he was last season.
Mike Schmitz: Heading into the season I dubbed Robin Lopez Phoenix’s x-factor, and his lack of production halfway through the season is clearly the Suns’ most disappointing development (or lack of development). But Lopez’s rebounding and interior presence has been replaced admirably by Marcin Gortat, meaning the Suns will stay afloat even if he remains a non-factor. If Vince Carter doesn’t get his act together, however, Phoenix’s playoff chances are grim. Carter looks lifeless and hobbled on the court as he lacks a first step and continues to jack up bad shots. But the Suns need his ability to create, especially late in games, or they’ll be stuck with an even sticker situation of dealing with an ego-driven star past his prime that shouldn’t be starting but won’t stand for coming off the bench.
Though the obvious choice would be Vince Carter, I’m going with Lopez for a couple reasons. He has been improving lately, posting possibly his best two-game stretch of the season just before the break (Utah-Dallas), and must continue that trend. He’s playing more aggressive basketball without letting his emotions negatively affect his game. Most importantly, it takes size to win in the Western Conference and Marcin Gortat can’t do it alone.
Tyler Emerick: The Suns need Carter to be a scorer. They need him to make the open shots he hasn’t been able to knock down consistently since coming over in the trade. Alvin Gentry once upon a time said he’d like Vince to be his go-to-guy down the stretch of tight games. That notion seems pretty out there now, but if Carter can find his way, Phoenix should be able to put teams away easier in the fourth quarter.
What’s the Suns’ most critical stretch the rest of the season?
Michael Schwartz: After facing Atlanta at home, the Suns hit the road for a six-game trip that is basically their season, as Alvin Gentry has said. If the Suns roll up a winning record, they could return to the driver’s seat for a playoff run buoyed by the good vibes of a chemistry-creating trip. If they fall apart, they may never be able to make up the ground during a brutal stretch run. Phoenix faces three playoff teams and three losing teams so the Suns need at least a split if not better.
Upcoming road trip
Mike Schmitz: Yes, the Suns need to come out of the All-Star break with a full head of steam, but their postseason fate will be decided in April. Coincidentally enough, the Suns face quite a rigorous schedule down the stretch. Over the course of the last eight games of the season, Phoenix plays San Antonio (twice), New Orleans, Dallas and Chicago. The Suns have a few freebies with Minnesota twice, but they also play New Orleans, Dallas and Oklahoma City to close out the month of March. Needless to say, the Suns need to bring the lumber in crunch time if they want a shot at the playoffs.
End of the season
Tyler Lockman: I, like many of the Suns themselves, believe the final few playoff spots in the West could come down to the last week of play, if not the last few games. In the month of April, the Suns play five of their eight games on the road. Four of those games come against teams better than .500 and three are against teams currently in the NBA’s top five. The Suns could face some very important games against very good teams.
Tyler Emerick: Right out of the gate the Suns have an opportunity to land four quick wins and maybe leapfrog a couple teams in the process. They get Atlanta at home before taking an East Coast swing to Toronto, Indiana and New Jersey. After that Phoenix will face Boston, Milwaukee and Oklahoma City before returning home. I think it’s important for the team to get off to a fast start and set the tone for the remainder of the regular season.
How will the Suns finish?
Michael Schwartz: The Suns have finally started to click the last couple weeks heading into the break, whereas so many other playoff contenders are faltering. Denver is done without Carmelo and Billups, so the Suns just need to jump over fading Utah or Memphis without Rudy Gay for a month. With veterans like Nash and Hill playing at such a high level and sensing they may not have too many playoff runs left, the Suns will rip off another strong stretch run to enter postseason play as the eighth seed in the West.
No. 8 seed
Mike Schmitz: Despite the tough schedule down the stretch, the Suns will do just enough to sneak in as the eighth seed. They’ve hit stride over the last 10 games (seven wins), but it’s going to be almost by default that they make the playoffs. Utah, the current eight seed, is two and a half games ahead of the Suns, but are sputtering as a result of Jerry Sloan’s departure. And the No. 7 Denver Nuggets, who the Suns trail by three games, just lost their superstar and basically dismantled their team, although they got some nice pieces in return. So while the Suns are the ones who’ve struggled with consistency, just as they’re becoming stable, their competition is in limbo, leaving the door open for Phoenix.
No. 8 seed
Tyler Lockman: The shakeup in Denver could cause the Nuggets to slip, Utah has been slowly fading, and Memphis has a grueling schedule ahead. With all that, I see a door opening for the Suns, but it will require that they keep beating the good teams (15 of their remaining 28 opponents are currently over .500) and especially the bad teams. They’ll have to be road warriors, too, as 16 of the final 28 are away from Phoenix. Ultimately though, I just can’t see the Suns getting past San Antonio or Dallas in a seven-game series.
No. 8 seed
Tyler Emerick: I see the Suns climbing back into the playoff picture and securing the seventh seed before it’s all said and done. Denver will fade after the Carmelo Anthony trade and after that, Phoenix only has to leapfrog over one more team to get into the playoff picture. Realistically, the team could end up as high as the fifth seed or as low as 12h, but with the way the Suns finished up before the All-Star break, I like where this squad is heading. More time playing together will only lead to more consistency and better play at the end of games. The most important thing Phoenix has to do is beat the teams it’s supposed to be (see Sacramento). The Suns can’t afford to give up games in the standings losing to the bottom feeders.
No. 7 seed