PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns have 28 games to play themselves into the playoffs, something they believe they can do.
It all starts Wednesday night against the Atlanta Hawks, the first of 15 games against winning teams before the season ends.
It’s also the Suns’ last taste of home for a while, as they begin a six-game road trip Friday that keeps them away from US Airways Center until March 8.
“We know that we’ve got an uphill battle as far as making the playoffs,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said after practice Tuesday. “We’ve got to leapfrog two teams to even be in the eighth spot. It’s going to be tough, but at least we’ve got a chance.”
The Suns enter the final stretch of the season with guarded optimism, confident they can seize one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference and aware that it will take quite a bit of effort.
Entering play Wednesday, the Suns sit 3.5 games back of the current eight seed, Utah, and two games behind Memphis, another team battling for a shot at the postseason.
Before the All-Star break, the Suns won seven of their previous 10 games and six of their last eight against teams over .500.
“The last three weeks, four weeks maybe, we’ve played really well for the most part,” Suns point guard Steve Nash said. “We’ve still coughed up a couple games we’d like to have back, but overall we’ve played well and if we can carry that over and continue to play at a good rate and maybe win some of of those close games, I think we’ll be satisfied with our finish.”
While nearly every Sun seemed to have the number “28″ on his mind, the focus Tuesday remained on the game at hand. The Suns have won five of their last six meetings with the Hawks, losing only in that stretch on Jamal Crawford’s buzzer-beating three-pointer last season.
The Hawks come to Phoenix on the second half of a back-to-back after losing on the road Tuesday night to the Los Angeles Lakers.
“Atlanta’s a good team and we’ve got to win our home games,” Nash said. “We’ve got to put pressure on ourselves to play well, come out and be sharp and leave it all out there to give ourselves the best possible chance to start these last 28 games with a win.”
Just how many games do the Suns have to reach the playoffs? It’s hard to say for sure. Some commentators speculated in the 17-18 range Wednesday, but the Suns are aiming a bit higher.
“It’s a crucial time for us,” Suns reserve point guard Goran Dragic said. “We probably have to win 20 games.”
The way Dragic spoke Tuesday, he and the rest of the team have clearly set their standards high. He referred multiple times to last season’s second-half surge as justification of the team’s confidence.
“We did it last year, so we know it’s possible,” Dragic said.
True, the Suns did make a Cinderella run to the Conference Finals last season, but that was a much different team with much different pieces and much different chemistry.
If the Suns can replicate some of the late-season energy that took them so far a year ago, they’ll likely have a shot at playing more than 82 games, but for now the Suns must prepare for one game at a time.
“It wasn’t easy last year, but we found a way to do it, so we’ve just got to dig down and start with tomorrow,” Gentry said on Tuesday. “We’ve got to win tomorrow and then we’ll worry about the next one after that.”
In a matter of a few days, two of the three teams the Suns are chasing for a playoff spot have dealt superstars. First it was Carmelo Anthony getting moved from Denver to New York, and early Wednesday it was Deron Williams moving from Utah to New Jersey. Though coming in an unusual way, the Suns’ chances may be getting better and better.