PHOENIX — Throughout the Suns’ wild ride to the precipice of a playoff berth, head coach Alvin Gentry has insisted he does not believe in “must-win” games because what do you tell your team if you lose?
“So if it’s a must-win situation today and we lose, do we not go to Utah and play?” Gentry asked before the Suns did indeed lose to the Nuggets on Saturday. “Or should we not play San Antonio the last game? Because if you say it’s a must-win situation, then you’re pretty much saying if you don’t win the season is over.”
Well, the season has finally reached the point where Gentry has no choice but to label tonight’s showdown in Utah as a “must-win” game because if the Suns don’t win they will be eliminated from playoff contention. If they win tonight they will either need to beat the Spurs on Wednesday or have Utah lose to the Blazers on Thursday to reach the playoffs.
And thus after Monday’s practice, the Suns’ head coach finally relented.
“We’re officially in a must-win situation,” Gentry said. “We have to go with the must-win thing now. But we are. Tomorrow night, if we don’t win our season is over. We have to go there with the intentions that we know that this is the seventh game of the championship series.”
Few thought the Suns would be in this position when the season began and hardly anybody could have predicted this when the Suns limped into the All-Star break sporting a 14-20 record. Now they are two wins away from becoming the first Western Conference team since the 1996-97 Suns (who were 17-31 at the break) to earn a playoff berth after being at least six games below .500 at All-Star time.
The Suns have done it with — what else? — offense, as their offensive rating since the break (108.0) ranks tied for second with the Nuggets after Phoenix played a mediocre offensive first half, according to the NBA’s stats tool.
In the past month their bench, a major liability at the start of the season, has really gelled. With Sebastian Telfair leading the show and Michael Redd transforming back into a go-to scorer, this unit has become a strength. In 13 April games, the Suns’ core bench unit of Bassy-Redd-Childress-Morris-Lopez has outscored teams by 23.3 points per 100 possessions in 111 minutes.
The bench played particularly well April 4 in Utah when the Suns eked out a 107-105 win as nearly the entire bench produced a double-digit positive +/- and all the starters were in the negatives although it did take some Steve Nash heroics down the stretch to pull out the victory. The Suns also used a hot-shooting night to defeat the Jazz 120-111 on March 14 in Phoenix, which is why they have already clinched the tiebreaker.
However, Gentry cautioned, “It doesn’t really matter what’s happened in the past. We still got to beat this Utah team that’s been really good at home. I think our guys feel confident that we can go put ourselves in a good enough position to win.”
The big unknown heading into this game remains the status of injured forwards Channing Frye and Grant Hill, who are both currently questionable. Frye did not fly with the team on Monday so he could witness the birth of his second child, Margaux Lauren, but Paul Coro reported he is expected to join the team in Utah today. Hill said he feels “as optimistic as [he's] felt in 10 days,” according to Coro.
If Frye doesn’t go, Gentry will have quite a decision on his hands about whether to start Markieff Morris or Hakim Warrick in his spot. Morris would seem to be a better matchup against Utah’s burly front line, but it might not be smart to break up the bench mob that has played so well.
Over the course of the season, the Suns have played the Nash-Brown-Dudley-Morris-Gortat lineup for 57 minutes over 23 games and it has outscored teams by 38.1 points per 100 possessions. Warrick has played 19 minutes over four games with the other non-Hill starters, which is way too small of a sample size to determine anything, but the Suns got clobbered by a net rating of 26.
Therefore, it probably makes sense to start Morris and potentially play him a few minutes with the bench as well.
It’s quite the spot for the Suns’ rookie as it’s not often that elimination games games occur at the end of the regular season in which two teams battling for the same playoff spot face off in one of the season’s final games.
For the Suns, it’s finally time to win or go home.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Nash said. “We control our own destiny.”
Added Jared Dudley, “May the best team win.”
UPDATE: Hill to play, Frye to sit
The Arizona Republic reported that Hill will play tonight against the Jazz but Frye will sit out. Hill will come off the bench, and Morris will start in Frye’s place.
If the Suns happen to make the playoffs, Austin Link from TeamRankings.com sees them as a “potential giant killer” due to Marcin Gortat and their team age:
“If Phoenix manages to make the playoffs, history is on its side. The Suns’ age and fast pace are harbingers of postseason success. So is the emergence of Marcin Gortat as one of the best all-around centers in the game. With the possible exception of one year with Shaq, Steve Nash has never had a true center of Gortat’s quality.
All told the Suns probably don’t have the talent to do much damage in the playoffs — if they even make it. They’ll be well overmatched talentwise if they make it to the first round. However, with a little Nash magic and Gortat manning the paint, an early upset is not out of the question.”
Add that all up and the Suns are expected to be 1.15 points better in the playoffs if they make it, the second-biggest improvement over the regular season in the West behind only the Lakers. Unfortunately for Phoenix, even with that uptick in no way would the Suns be expected to pull off a first-round upset. …
Paul Coro discovered why Cedric Ceballos abruptly left his position as the Suns’ emcee at home games in an interview published on Saturday:
“It’s been 10 years since I created that role. My whole objective was to try to get in with the organization, either on the basketball side or on the broadcasting side on the radio and TV. Those are my passions. After 10 years of asking (former CEO) Rick Welts to do something and not even asking for a salary increase, I couldn’t keep asking why. In most corporations, after 10 years, you move up. They seemed like they weren’t worried about my well-being or future. I told them at some point people are going to get tired of me yelling at them. I could’ve been 10 years into something else.” …
The Suns are hosting a game watch party in US Airways Center for tonight’s contest that will be emceed by Kevin Ray and Tom Chambers. Fans can shoot around on the court from 6-7 p.m. and then enjoy the game on the main scoreboard. Admission is free. …
John Hollinger on tonight’s “first game of the playoffs”: “Phoenix’s one shot is zone defense. According to Synergy, Utah ranks 29th in points per play against zones, and the Suns have been a fairly common user of zone defenses this season.”
Kevin Zimmerman contributed reporting.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.