Coming out of the All-Star break, things seemed to be lining up just right for the Phoenix Suns.
Sure, the team’s final 28 games featured 15 teams .500 or better at the time, and 16 were on the road, but the Suns remained convinced that they were in position to play their way into the playoffs.
Winning six of their first eight after the break was a convincing way to start, but the Suns’ path to the playoffs has only gotten harder.
First, Channing Frye dislocated his shoulder on March 6 and could be out until the end of March. Then Steve Nash slowly started to struggle as he deals with a groin injury.
It’s all come to a head with the Suns current three-game losing streak and a road game against the New Orleans Hornets is not the ideal setup to break out of a funk. However, the Suns rarely complain about their lot in terms of the schedule and certainly know that they can’t afford to keep losing.
Sitting two and a half games out of the eighth playoff spot in the West and facing 10 of their final 17 games against playoff teams, the Suns have little room for error. One more loss drops the Suns back to an even .500 and gives the Houston Rockets a chance to jump them in the standings.
Steve Nash said at shootaround Wednesday that he would play against the Hornets. On the surface, that sounds like good news for the Suns, but it’s unclear how effective Nash will be dealing with the injury. Nash has been known, however, to step up and play like a madman through injuries at times when the Suns need it most.
As a scorer, Nash has been ineffective since the All-Star break, topping out at 13 points in the first game back and averaging just 8.8 points per game since. As a playmaker though, Nash has been productive, tallying 11.6 assists per game.
Nash’s late season slowdown is certain to spark the annual debate of whether the two-time MVP, at 37 years old, can still be physically stable through an entire season. This injury doesn’t help the argument that he can. Unfortunately for Phoenix, the Suns aren’t in a position to rest Nash and have him ready for the playoffs as they were able to last year.
With Nash less than 100 percent, reserve point guards Zabian Dowdell and Aaron Brooks become much more important. The burden of running the fourth-highest scoring and ninth-most efficient offense in the NBA gets a little heavier. In a loss to the Rockets on Monday, it was Dowdell who stepped up, totaling 11 points and five assists while posting an impressive plus-20.
The game before, it was Brooks with 19 points and 10 assists. Neither effort, however, was enough to get a win. The Suns have beaten just one current playoff team since the break, a Pacers squad that’s clinging to a half-game hold on the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Before the break, the Suns’ problem was beating the bad teams they should be beating. Now the issue has become beating the good teams they must. The road to the playoffs has become a steeper uphill climb for the Suns, and they are the only ones who can prevent it from getting so steep that they tumble backwards out of contention.