Time: 7 p.m. MST
Tonight will be a busy night of basketball viewing for Phoenix Suns’ fans. At 7 p.m. MST, the Suns will play their final home game of the year. They take on the Houston Rockets for what feels like the 50th time in the last month. But before tip off at the US Airways Center, a game with far more impact on the Suns’ future will be played. At 5:00 pm MST, the Jazz and Timberwolves will face off in Minneapolis. The Jazz need a win to stay in the hunt for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Suns need the Jazz to take care of business to keep alive their hopes of getting the Lakers’ first-round pick.
Los Angeles beat San Antonio last night without the injured Kobe Bryant to go a game and a half up on the Jazz. Regardless of how Utah fares in its next two games (at Minnesota and at Memphis), the Lakers can clinch a playoff spot with a win on Wednesday at home against the Rockets. Both the Jazz and the Lakers will be facing opponents with something still to play for on Wednesday. Memphis can still get home court advantage in the first round if they end up with a better record than the Clippers. And Houston is battling Golden State for the sixth seed though the Rockets own the tiebreaker.
For the second year in a row, the Jazz hold the Suns’ fate in their hands. Last season, it was a Utah win over Phoenix which kept the Suns out of the playoffs. This year, the Suns need two Jazz victories to secure a second lottery pick.
Though the Suns’ record has plummeted and the Jazz’s has stayed the same, the case can be made that Phoenix is better off having bottomed out instead of chugging along on the treadmill of mediocrity. Of course, that is only true if this is indeed the bottom for the Suns and the franchise uses their reward for bottoming out (draft picks) to start the slow climb back toward contention.
The Suns’ last meaningful home win was against the Rockets on March 9. I’m discounting the victory against the Lakers nine days later because LA was without Kobe and Gasol in that game, and the Suns had already gotten their Nash-revenge when they came back from a 10-point deficit to beat the Lakers on January 30. Looking back, it’s hard to explain how the Suns beat the Rockets that night considering James Harden scored 38 points and the Rockets as a team hit 19 shots from beyond the arc. The Suns have lost plenty of games this season where an opposing player dropped 30-plus points on them or a team sank double-digit threes. But the win over the Rockets was a different. Goran Dragic put the team on his back and scored 13 in the final quarter to seal the win. That game was the start of an impressive close to the season for Goran who is the Suns’ best and possibly only inspiration for optimism from this lackluster season.
Quietly and unbeknownst to the rest of the league, Dragic has raised his assist and scoring numbers every month since December. Since averaging 12.5 ppg and 6.2 apg at the end of 2012, Goran has raised his output to 16.8 ppg and 8.7 apg in the month of April. In the interests of full disclosure, part of this rise is due to a 10% increase in minutes played this month. But it’s very encouraging that Dragic has the stamina and will to play more minutes and carry more of the scoring load at the tail end of the season.
The Dragon had never played a full 82-game schedule as a starting point guard before this year. It’s understandable that he may have gotten physically and emotionally exhausted midway through the season. But there is no doubt he is hitting his stride right now, and while his improved play may not be translating into wins for the Suns, he is proving that the contract he signed in the offseason was money well spent. If he can produce at this level next year, he may could be rated among the top point guards in the league.
Dragic gets to the cup as well as any point guard in the NBA save Russell Westbrook and a healthy Tony Parker. He can score and more importantly, he can create his own shot. Since March 1, he is second in the NBA in assists behind Chris Paul. And he’s doing all this with a very limited supporting cast. It would take a colossal set of front office follies for the Suns not to improve at all this offseason. I’m not ruling out that possibility, but nonetheless it is unlikely. With better talent surrounding him next year, Dragic could be poised for a serious breakout.
As he gets set to face his former team, all of the Suns’ hope for the future rests on his shoulders. Lately, it seems as though he’s right at home carrying that kind of load.
In last season’s final home game, the fans chanted, “We Want Nash” hoping for one last chance to savor the past. This year, there will be no chant. This season hasn’t had anything worth reliving with two games left. Fans instead will watch the game and silently hope that this offseason brings a brighter future to the Valley of the Sun.