Time: 5:00 pm MST
Three more games and the 2012-13 season is just a bad memory for the Phoenix Suns. Three more games, and this team can begin to move forward; something it hasn’t really done all season.
Ever since the preseason optimism surrounding the Suns wore off, it has been very clear that this year was going to be a rough one in terms of wins and losses for Phoenix. But just because a team realizes it’s lottery-bound before Christmas doesn’t mean all attempts to improve should be abandoned. The stellar effort on display in their last two games notwithstanding, the Suns have failed to improve their chemistry and execution all season long.
Win or lose, every NBA game is an opportunity for a team to grow and improve as a team. From an outside perspective, it doesn’t seem as though the Suns have grown or improved meaningfully from the start of the season to now. In their defense, they changed coaches mid-way through the year. Likewise, the front office made a few moves that shook up the roster, and the younger players have been getting more run in the last few months. But in the grand scheme of things, this team has been together since September, and in all that time, their chemistry, comfort with the offense, and communication on defense has not improved appreciably.
The bumps in the road mentioned above – coaching change, trades, youth movement – aren’t valid excuses for this lack of progress. If they did impede the team’s development that just means the expectations in place were misguided. It’s been clear since Christmas the Suns weren’t going anywhere in the stacked Western Conference. The only thing Phoenix could have actually achieved this year was growing together as a team. That hasn’t happened, and that missed opportunity may be the biggest letdown of all.
So what can the Suns’ play for tonight in the Twin Cities and in the remaining games on the schedule? There are three possible goals.
The first goal is revenge. The Suns have had some bad losses this year, but other than the beat down they received in Detroit on November 28th, the loss to the Timberwolves on March 22nd was the worst. It was the Suns’ worst home loss of the season. Though being doomed to the lottery was inevitable, that defeat officially eliminated the Suns from playoff contention. The team may not even be aware that Minnesota dealt them their worst home loss, but if they are, there is some revenge to be had. Plus, Wesley Johnson probably has more than a little desire to show his old team up after failing to do so in any of the teams’ previous three matchups. It is not yet known if Michael Beasley will play tonight after the birth of his daughter earlier in the week.
The second goal is aftertaste. No matter how the rest of these games go, this season will be a disappointment in the minds of the players, coaches, and fans. But even a bad meal can be salvaged with a great desert. While a four game win streak to end the year won’t even begin to paper over this disaster of a season, it will at least help prevent every one in the Valley of the Sun from stewing in unrelenting negativity between now and the draft. Winning these final three games will not and should not inspire optimism for next season, but it could help dull the pain a bit, like a tension relieving joke in Saving Private Ryan.
The third goal is the same as the second except specifically for Lindsey Hunter. Remember when Hunter was .500 through eight games in early February? That seems like a lifetime ago, especially after Phoenix lost 14-of-15 recently. Hunter wants to stay on as the Suns’ coach. He wants a chance to prove himself. Three more wins won’t quantitatively help his record, but from a qualitative standpoint, he can make a case that a four-game win streak, in the wake of a disappointing loss in Houston, was proof that he could rally the team even when they had nothing to play for. In reality, the Suns may have already decided whether or not they’ll keep Hunter, but if not, three more wins at the end can only help his case.
Keys to the game
- The matchup between Ricky Rubio and Goran Dragic is the most compelling part of tonight’s game. Their battle is a stark contrast of styles. Dragic is an incredible penetrator who likes to get to the rim and run in transition. Rubio has incredible passing skills and court vision. Neither really has the edge defensively, so which point guard gets the upper hand will likely come down to which guy’s teammates make more shots.
- Nikola Pekovic is a beast inside. He sat out last night’s game with a calf contusion. If he plays tonight, the Suns’ must contain him down low, using double teams if necessary. Minnesota is a poor three-point shooting team, so Phoenix won’t have to worry quite as much about getting burned from downtown if they pack the paint. If Pek sits out, Phoenix must take advantage on the boards and in the paint.
- Kobe Bryant is done for the season with a possible Achilles tear. The Jazz need to win one more game than the Lakers over the final two to secure the eight-seed and bring the 14th pick in the draft to Phoenix